by Roderick Conway Morris

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Venice Film Festival
Yusuke Iseya as Yoshitsuna in Miike Takashi's 'Sukiyaki Western Django.'

Samurai meets spaghetti western in Takashi's mad amalgam

By Roderick Conway Morris
VENICE 6 September 2007


Hollywood's 'Magnificent Seven' was based on Akiro Kurosawa's 'Seven Samurai,' and Sergio Leone's 'Fistful of Dollars,' an unblushing rip-off of the Japanese director's 'Yojimbo' (The Bodyguard). Miike Takashi, in the time-honored 'Many Years Later' style of spaghetti westerns has now exacted revenge with his in-competition 'Sukiyaki Western Django,' one of the last to be screened at the Venice Film Festival, which ends Saturday night.

In this first production of the self-declared new 'Sukiyaki western' genre, its plot pirated from Sergio Corbucci's 1966 'Django,' Takashi has served up an outrageous brew of samurai pictures and spaghetti or, as they are known in Japan, 'macaroni,' westerns. Stirred into this mix are ancient Japanese tales of warring clans, folklore, classical and puppet theater, and Shakespeare's 'Henry VI' trilogy - one of the clan leaders deciding overnight to rename himself Henry as a token of respect for the bard's work, his current bedtime reading.

The setting is a frontier gold-rush town in Japan, a bizarre amalgam of Japanese and Wild West architecture with post house inns out of the prints of Hiroshige and Hokusai and American saloon interiors. When the mysterious gun-slinging horseman rides into town, the former mayor's body is hanging from a giant Shinto 'Torii' archway at the top of the main street.

The film is shot in lurid color, with traditional spaghetti western style editing at its most wilfully wonky. The excruciating dialogue - which contains such gems as 'the sound of the Gion Shoja temple bells echoes the impermanence of all things' and 'the color of the sala flowers reveals the truth that to flourish is to fall' - is delivered entirely in English (which Takashi does not speak himself) by a Japanese cast (with useful, sometimes essential, English subtitles). The music, lifted from the original Italian 'Django,' is whistled, sung using ancient Japanese vibrato techniques, and played on instruments including trumpets and Australian Aborigine didgeridoos.

The plot is ludicrous, the violence laughable, the costumes make punk and gothic look understated, the acting over the top. This will surely become a young people's cult classic. The director maintains that this is not a parody, but he has a devastating eye for the genre's weak points. If the jury, consisting this year entirely of film directors, awards this film the Golden Lion, its decision will go down in film festival legend (although its members may find themselves relieved for life of further jury duties). Takashi is also threatening to launch further productions on the same lines, including a 'Sukiyaki Emmanuelle.' The mind boggles.

Almost but not quite as crazy is Wes Anderson's 'The Darjeeling Limited,' the story of three brothers, Francis (Owen Wilson), Peter (Adrien Brody, star of Roman Polanski's 'The Pianist') and Jack (Jason Schwartzman, co-writer of the movie with the director and Roman Coppola), who set off on a long-distance rail journey in India in search of enlightenment, fueled by sibling rivalries, whiskey and supplies of mind-altering prescription pharmaceuticals.

The brothers have not seen or spoken to each other for a year since their father's funeral. Francis, the control freak elder brother, who has organized the excursion, having recently survived a near-fatal motorcycle accident, is limping and swathed in bandages. Peter's wife is about to deliver their first child, just at the moment when he thinks they ought to be getting divorced. Jack has already split up with his girlfriend, but keeps in touch by hacking into her answering machine to which he has obtained the code. They are all on their way (although only Francis knows this) to see their mother, Patricia (Anjelica Huston), who has retired to a remote mountain monastery, and failed to show up at her husband's funeral.

An entire train consisting of engine and 10 coaches, stripped down and rebuilt with fantasy baroque interiors, was run up and down the lines of Rajastan for three months to make the movie. Road, or more strictly, rail films do not get much more elaborate and whackier than this. All three brothers are totally nuts in their different ways, but traveling in their company becomes surprisingly enjoyable, both despite and because of their obsessions, and we finally part from them with a mixture of relief and regret at the end of this hectic and colorful journey.

'A kiss is just a kiss,' in the words of the old song. Or is it? This is the question raised by the out-of-competition 'Un baiser, s'il vous plaît' (Shall We Kiss?), written and directed by Emmanuel Mouret. The elegant and enticing Emilie (Julie Gayet) runs by chance into the very personable Gabriel (Michaël Cohen) on an overnight business trip to Nantes. She accepts his invitation to dinner. When he delivers her back to her hotel, he knows and she knows that both of them are drawn to exchanging an innocent, or perhaps not so innocent good-night kiss. Emilie resists. She has a salutary tale to tell.

The story within the story revolves around Judith (Virginie Ledoyen) and her best childhood friend Nicolas (Emannuel Mouret himself). Judith is happily married to Eric (Stefano Accorsi), but when Nicolas tells her that he is suffering a crisis of feminine affection deprivation, she agrees to increase their level of intimacy, solely as a first aid measure. This leads to a quite unexpected chain of events.

'Un baiser, s'il vous plaît' is an old-fashioned French romantic and social comedy in the very best sense. Articulate, poised, witty and entertaining, it presents a thoroughly likeable (if exotically unimaginative) group of characters, whose tranquil existence is overturned by a perfectly credible situation, which eventually has us in a considerable state of suspense.

Making credible films about the Mafia is no easy task, but Andrea Porporati's manages this with his in-competition 'Il dolce e l'amaro' (The Bitter and the Sweet), shot in Sicily. Saro Scordia (Luigi Lo Cascio) is the son of a Palermo mafioso, whom he has hardly known, since his father was arrested when he was still a child, and was subsequently murdered in a top-security prison. Saro has nevertheless grown up believing the only path to becoming somebody in Sicilian society is to join the mob.

The aspiring hoodlum has an enchantingly beautiful and independent-minded girlfriend Ada (Donatella Finocchiaro), who refuses to become his wife because she has no intention of marrying a criminal and producing children who will very likely go on to perpetuate the island's endless cycle of violence.

Ada has another admirer, Stefano Massirenti (Fabrizio Gifuni), a studious young man from the same poor neighborhood, also intent on improving himself, but by legitimate means. One night, in a fit of jealousy, Saro beats up Stefano in the street. Stefano lacks the brutality to defend himself, but refuses to run away, leaving Saro confused, with a grudging respect for him.

By centering on the progress of a single, low-level individual, the film systematically exposes the squalid realities of the 'honored society' and any misguided romantic illusions that it genuinely defends the weak and dispenses a kind of rough justice. Riddled with internal betrayal, commanded by petty and vindictive old men, it devours its own as quickly as it can recruit new blood.

One of the most compelling aspects of the film is its portrayal of the extraordinary sense of fatalism that pervades the organization. Saro has effectively signed his own death warrant when he becomes a fully fledged member of the mob. His contemporary, Stefano, goes on to become an anti-mafia judge, possibly signing his. But whereas Saro has sleep-walked into his predicament, Stefano has made a conscious choice.

This thought-provoking story reflects the ongoing paradox that Sicily keeps producing mafiosi, yet also the policemen and women, ordinary citizens and judges with the courage to risk their lives standing up to them.

First published: International Herald Tribune

© Roderick Conway Morris 1975-2024