Happy New Year to all my readers both old and new. I can’t deny it hasn’t been a particularly great year for me personally and certainly not a vintage year film-wise. My 2013 Top Ten should be up at the weekend, and I will talk in more depth then. However, I did catch a movie on New Years Day (to be honest, as a tee-totaller, there isn’t an awful lot else to do in the UK on New Years Day if you haven’t any DIY to do). I was going to punish myself by seeing Spike Lee’s version of “Oldboy”, but it seems to have already disappeared, so I thought I would give the other American-Asian flop of the season a go – The much panned and financial disaster that is “47 Ronin”. Couldn’t be THAT bad could it?
“47 Ronin” is a version of the oft filmed (and used in other entertainment media too) tale of.. well the 47 Ronin. In 18th Century Japan (though this is very much a Fantasy version rather than anything historically and culturally accurate) a young half-breed call Kai (Keanu Reeves) is rescued in some woods and adopted by the local Lord Asano (Min Tanaka). He is not taken in by all, and is despised by the Samurai of the clan (for being a half-breed with a potential demonic connection), especially the leader Oishi (Hiroyuki Sanada). However, he is much adored by the daughter of Lord Asano, Mika (Kou Shibasaki), even though any real love is totally impossible. Kai grows up amongst the clan, helping where he can, dealing with various levels of rejection. The arrival of Shogun Tsunayoshi (Cary-Hiroyuki Tagawa) along with rival clan leader Lord Kira (Tadanobu Asano) should be a great cause for celebration, but Kira has a plan to dishonour Asano. Aided by the machinations of the Sorceress Mizuki (Rinko Kikuchi), Asano is tricked into attacking Kira. The Shogun demands that Asano commit seppuku, leaving his Samurai leaderless Ronin. To stop any potential war between the two clans, the Shogun also demands that Mika is to be married to Kira after a year of mourning, and declares no act of reprisal by the ex-Samurai is to be countenanced. Lord Kira makes doubly sure by selling Kai off into slavery, and imprisoning Oishi. A year later, Oishi is freed, and starts to plot a revenge for the death of his master, knowing that this action will necessitate the loss of his life and all those that follow him. It won’t end happily either way, but can Oishi, Kai and the band of 47 Ronin rescue Mika and the Clan from their fate?
This could be tough. Where oh where to begin. The reviews have been fairly awful, and the film is utterly flawed in execution – it’s metamorphosis over the 5 years it has been in production is very clear to see. But, I didn’t think it was as bad as all that. Kinda.
The biggest issue is that there is clearly two separate movies that wanted to be made. There is a Hollywood-style Samurai film. And on the whole it does this reasonably OK – it won’t stand up to the real classics of the genre. But it is gorgeously filmed, full of colour and well designed sets. The final attack on Kira’s stronghold is a delight mostly. The Japanese actors are also pretty good, in fact this is a cast that a Japanese movie would be proud to have. Kou Shibasaki is gorgeous and simmers with a restrained rage. Hiroyuki Sanada is his usual brilliant self. In fact only the woefully miscast Rinko Kikuchi (who I normally like, and an Oscar nomination says she must have talent) is a real issue.
But then there is this other film. The strange fantasy film about Reeves’ character which has Sorceresses, giant mythological beasts, 10 foot high Samurai, misshapen ogres, a cult of demonic bird-men-priests. In and of itself, this movie is also perfectly fine, but they simply don’t gel together. The real story should be about revenge and honour, and maybe even the hardly developed love story of Kai and Mika. But then we just get these CGI scenes which are little more than eye candy. And the world of the film just makes no sense – it is clear the supernatural world is well known… so how can the very human rules of the world make any sense?
It really is a quite gorgeous film though, I haven’t seen a big movie like this look so stunning for a long time. The CGI may take you out of the story, but it is really well done. I also went to see it in 3D, and again – it’s really actually quite good – it has a depth to it rather than things poking out of the screen unrealistically.
Reeves is fine, being his normal moody mono-syllabic self, but actually the problem is not him, but his character who has so obviously been shoehorned in. He gets no time with Shibasaki to give you any sense of undying love.
In fact, the central character is that of Oishi, and when he is front and centre the film is at it’s strongest. The problem is that so much time is wasted on the fantasy moments, that the relationship he has with his Wife and Son can only be hinted at. And the rest of the Ronin are equally thinly drawn, meaning we really don’t care when they fall by the wayside.
And then there is the strange language choice. I know Westerners don’t really go in for subtitled movies. And I know that casting Asian Americans would have caused upset amongst many. But the choice to have the mostly Japanese cast struggle with English is baffling. Whilst the cast apparently did do every take in Japanese as well, I think that was just for scene familiarisation, so I am sure that the Japanese version is also in English (if someone can verify that for me it would be cool). Which then helps you work out why it also bombed in Japan.
The overall failure of the film is a shame. Because there is talent involved. It looks fantastic. There is enough of a decent movie to make it almost worth seeing. Even the strange film that has somehow been imprinted over the top isn’t totally awful. But they mix like oil and water. I want to say mildly recommended, but I can’t. So for the first time ever? Neutral.