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Bunraku (2010)
Director: Guy Moshe

review by Jim Steel

This is one of the most over-designed films ever made. Unfortunately it is also one of the most incoherent. If you assembled the most talented plumbers, electricians and carpenters that you could find and told them to build a house then you would end up with something that had walls and a roof but, unless the project was managed, it would be a very ugly building indeed. This is what appears to have happened with Bunraku. The cinematography, wardrobe, choreography, and lighting are superb, but the end result is nonsense. Worse than that, it is boring - and that is unforgivable.

The opening credits explain that, due to escalating violence, all weapons more sophisticated than swords have been banished in an attempt to stop humanity wiping itself out. Ignoring the fact that this is the very same technology that allowed Genghis Khan to kill millions, we have to wonder why the filmmakers bothered. The film is so deliberately anti-realist that there is no way that anyone could mistake this for anything other than a fairytale. The entire film is shot in the studio and the sets show a great familiarity with expressionism and constructivism. West Side Story, a much more realistic portrayal of gang warfare than this (trust me), chose the studio route because it was the only one that they could go down without looking ridiculous. Bunraku, on the other hand, made this choice simply to look arty.

Anyway, let's have a look at what we'll laughingly refer to as the 'plot'. A stranger arrives in town (the charisma-free Josh Harnett who also appeared in the similar but much more successful Sin City). He walks into a bar where the barman is played by Woody (Cheers) Harrelson, which possibly suggests a po-mo meaning for the mumbo-jumbo utterances about travelling in a circle that come later in the film. So far, so noir... They team up with a samurai warrior (the strangely feminine-looking Gackt Camui) who lives nearby, and the three of them go up against town boss Nicola the Woodcutter and his team of killers.

At one stage Nicola explains to his concubine (Demi Moore) that no one knows what he looks like but, since he's played by Ron Perlman, owner of one of the most distinctive faces in Hollywood, this obviously doesn't apply to the film's audience. Having said that, when did Perlman become so ordinary-looking? Here, he is sporting a beard and Mick-Hucknall dreads; you could walk past him in the street without recognising him. When he appears in public in the film, he dresses as the Woodcutter which seems to involve wearing a big V For Vendetta hat. This, together with the Sin City references mentioned earlier, suggests that the director knows his way around the world of graphic novels. It's a pity that more of it didn't stick.

Nicola's Killer Number 2 is a sharp-suited Mancunian played by Kevin McKidd. The other killers are equally idiosyncratic but are sometimes barely on stage long enough for their presence to register. Their pictures and numbers flicker up on little cards at the side of the screen when they first appear, which a nice (and successful) touch. Another successful use of imagery is having the subtitles for conversations in Japanese appear as comic-book inserts. There are plenty of lovely little tricks like that, but they fail to make this two-hour marathon come to life. Plenty of martial arts and some heavy violence as well but, you know, even that becomes tedious after a while.

The dialogue is nonsensical much of the time, for example: "Like an aged tree which yields no blossoms, cheerful my life has been bearing but a single fruit." At first glance you think you know what it means, but if you examine it more carefully it breaks down into gibberish. The film is packed with stuff like this. For a line of dialogue to be profound, it must first of all be comprehensible. And yet one of the characters also feels the need to explain what an arachnid is, just in case the audience isn't being insulted enough.

Guy Moshe both wrote and directed this mess, so the blame must be laid at his feet. With its Sunday supplement approach to images and its copious use of martial arts it may just find a cult audience out there but even that seems unlikely. Tedium is the hardest thing to fight.

Bunraku



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