Outrage (dir. Takeshi Kitano, 2010, Japan)
I'll admit I sort of lost Kitano-san's trail w/ his later non-Yakuza works, like Achilles and the Tortoise that played at Japan Cuts in NYC in 2009. I think I'm like many film fanatics, whether Japanese or not, who know the burly guy best for his Yakuza roles. We want some violence, some hard-scrapping bloodshed! Maybe not necessarily the infamously twisted character from Kinji Fukasaku's Battle Royale, but at least a Yohji Yamamoto besuited smirking thug. Outrage is exhilarating Yakuza as only Kitano-san can do, a tightly woven, multilinear crime story of double- and triple-crosses as members of the huge crime syndicate Sannokai wrestle for power. It's also an all-star cast of classic mob-role actors: Jun Kunimura as one boss Ikemoto, Renji Ishibashi as another Murase (and Ikemoto's sworn "brother"), Kitano himself as Ikemoto's subordinate Otomo, Hideo Nakano (perpetually leering in sly pleasure) as Otomo's enforcer Kimura, and an absolutely badass Tomokazu Miura as the ice-cold, power-grubbing lieutenant to the entire clan. Only Susumu Terajima (you might know him as the heavily tattooed guy who gets meat-hooked then scalded w/ tempura oil by Tadanobu Asano in Takashi Miike's Ichi the Killer, or as Asano's right-hand man in Katsuhito Ishii's Sharkskin Man and Peach-Hip Girl, or in Kitano's Brother) is visibly missing, but I dug Kitano's choice of Ryo Kase as the bespectacled accountant-thug Ishihara, and he plays his role to chilling, short-fuse precision. And though it's verrry dude-heavy, Eihi Shiina (of Miike's Audition and Yoshihiro Nishimura's Tokyo Gore Police) provides a scene-stealing cameo w/ a Gambian dignitary/gambler. The plot itself, though the cast is enormous, can be boiled down as follows: think of Ikemoto and Murasa's gangs as Democrats and Republicans, but instead of jockeying for power via campaign slanderings they gun down one another, and Miura is above it all biding his time and calling the shots for the big boss Sekiuchi more than meets the eye. And don't forget side characters who get beat up or slashed but don't actually die, at least not onscreen — rule of thumb in Kitano's Yakuza world: somebody gets roughed up, if you don't kill 'em, they'll come back and kill you.
Agnosia (dir. Eugenio Mira, 2010, Spain)
Lots of strong Spanish films at this festival, and Agnosia was quite possibly the hottest ticket of all of 'em. It plays quite like a dream that gradually draws into sharp focus over the duration of the film. I found it incredibly gorgeous, this baroque steampunk-ish turn-of-the-century Spain, but the gist remained somewhat translucent to me by the conclusion. The main family is very wealthy and technologically advanced, but their daughter suffers from the titular ailment, unable to decipher visual elements. Her condition is explained concisely at the dinner table via demonstration: the doctor overflows a glass w/ water to equate w/ Joana's overstimulation. The many maids and servants wear huge color-coded boutonnieres on their jackets so she can tell one from the other (when the camera switches to her view, the world melts into smeared light and ghostly apparitions, like Riddick's vision in Pitch Black). Only...Joana's father the inventor-patriarch is killed, leaving his lucrative industrial secrets in her hands. Two men, styled to look almost exactly the same to us (and totally the same to Joana), her fiance and father's business partner Carles and one of the servants Vicent, move in to extract that info by using Joana's sensory affliction whilst safeguarding her simultaneously. The fact it's not quite clear who means well for her and who is trying to screw her over keeps the flow juuust on edge, but this sumptuous film is one I'll need to see again.
Bunraku (dir. Guy Moshe, 2010, USA)
This just SOUNDS like my kind of film: a super-saturated, stylized, bust-'em-up action romp, melding Japanese aesthetic w/ Russian Constructivism and spaghetti westerns w/ panache and a sick film score. Indeed it's dude-heavy (Josh Hartnett as the bare-knuckle Stranger, J-Rocker Gackt as a samurai Yoshi, Woody Harrelson as a liquor-slinger and artiste (and incidentally one of my favorite roles)) and it's testosterone-soaked, but it's a fine joyride. This world, modeled off actual Bunraku, Japanese puppet theatre crossed w/ pop-up books, has outlawed firearms, so swordfighting is back in style and the land is ruled by a shadowy, hatchet-throwing behemoth (Nicola, classic Ron Perlman) and his huge band of red-suited thugs, led by the dandyish Killer #2 (Kevin McKidd, played to insouciant perfection). The Stranger seeks out Nicola b/c he's obsessed w/ gambling and wants in on the boss' private game (though he's got a much bigger motive as well, not to be revealed here), and Yoshi appears b/c Nicola's taken something dear to him — a family crest and his uncle's (outstandingly cast by Shun Sugata) life. The whole film is mind-candy overdose, hardboiled wonderland outta Paul Pope's nameless floppy-haired hero's realm. Just to pick out a scene: the Stranger rescues Yoshi from the clink in a horizontal platform-game styled bash, snatch & grab, one-upping the video-game-centric Scott Pilgrim v. The World + meeting the level of the famous side-scrolling corridor fight in Park Chan-Wook's Oldboy. The action is relentless and the violence close-in and bone-breaking, w/ no one pulling punches so to speak. Hartnett's Stranger v. like his doppelganger in Nicola's Kyoto-ish lair is especially frenetic, and Nicola himself throws those hatchets to swift & visceral effect. This + the giddy visual palette, smart design and deft, acrobatic cinematography left me exhausted by the denouement. Two minutes later, I wanted to take the ride again.