2017년 9월 25일 월요일

Vioent Cop (1989)- Q Branch Academia Blu Ray Review

VIOLENT COP その男, 凶暴につき.  A Shochiku-Fuji/Bandai Media Co-Production, 1989. 1 hour 43 minutes, Aspect Ratio 1.85:1, Eastman Color 35mm, Stereo Sound System. Director: Kitano Takeshi 北野武. Screenplay: Nozawa Hisashi. 野沢尚 Cinematography: Sasakibara Yasushi. 佐々木原保志 Producer: Okuyama Kazuyoshi. 奥山和由 Production Design: Mochizuki Masateru. 望月正照 Music: Kume Daisaku 久米大作   CAST: Kitano "Beat" Takeshi (Azuma), Kishibe Ittoku岸辺一徳 (Nito), Hakuryu白竜 (Kiyohara), Ashikawa Makoto 芦川誠 (Kikuchi), Kawakami Maiko 川上麻衣子(Akari), Terajima Susumu 寺島進 (Orida), Ozawa Kazuyoshi 小沢一義 (Ueda), Sakuma Tetsu 佐久間哲 (Katahira), Sano Shiro 佐野史郎 (New District Chief), Kawakami Ei 川上泳 (Hashizume), Hayami Kei 速水渓 (Nito's Secretary) 

Violent Cop is "Beat" Kitano Takeshi's debut feature film. Kitano, who has turned seventy this year (2017), has been a hugely successful comedian, best known for politically incorrect, some might say actively offensive, stand-up acts (or more precisely the Japanese version of it, manzai, similar to Abbott and Costello in the sense that the format requires two performers, a straight one [tsukkomi] and a dopey one [boke]). His comedian's moniker "Beat" Takeshi derives from the manzai duo's name "Two Beats," a partnership with "Beat" Kiyoshi a.k.a. Kaneko Jiro, which Kitano claims has never been officially dissolved. In December 1986, fed up with the scandal mag Friday's relentless pursuit of his extra-marital affairs, Takeshi, leading a group of his comedy pupils known as his "troops (gundan)," attacked journalists working for the mag, physically threatening them and trashing their office. Even though he was thought to have received a fatal blow to his career, Takeshi rebounded. He has also been working steadily as a film and TV actor, taking non-comedic roles, some of which highly acclaimed-- most notably, as a Korean-Japanese murderer Kim Hiro in a TV docudrama Kim's War [Kimu no sensoキムの戦争, 1992], a brutish yet sensitive Imperial Army sergeant in Oshima Nagisa's Merry Christmas, Mr. Lawrence (1983) and a vicious gay assassin in Ishii Takashi's GONIN (1995), among others-- since at least 1980 (barring his youthful works as movie extras). 

Two years after the scandal and in the midst of the rebound, Kitano was cast in a lead role, as the title character of Dirty Harry-like Detective Azuma, in the present project, originally to be directed by Fukasaku Kinji (1930-2003, Graveyard of Honor 仁義の墓場, Battle Royale). However, producer Okuyama Kazuyoshi apparently did not favor Fukasaku's approach, which, judging from the first draft written for him by screenwriter Nozawa Hisashi (Sleepless Town 不夜城 [1998], The Frame 破線のマリス [1999]), was very much in the social realist-exposé mode. After Fukasaku left the project citing a schedule conflict, Okuyama offered the director's chair to Kitano, who completely rewrote the screenplay as one of the conditions for accepting the responsibility. The situation, in retrospect, was an intriguing one, as if Clint Eastwood was asked to direct Dirty Harry after Don Siegel dropped out, and he proceeded to make a moody, psychological thriller in the mold of Play Misty for Me, entirely undercutting Harry Callahan's sense of control and (frankly) fascistic tendencies (We could talk some other time about the parallel between Kitano and Eastwood, two iconoclastically right-wing superstars, who nonetheless had directed some brazenly "artistic" films that seem to undermine their own beloved public personas).

Even though Violent Cop certainly lives up to its English and Japanese (the literal translation of the Japanese title is something like "The Man, Known to be Violent" in the manner of a warning sign) titles, it is not entirely the film that North American viewers might expect, based on its reputation. The film opens with a horrifying sequence in which a homeless man is senselessly beaten to death by a group of bicycle-riding teenagers. The protagonist, Detective Azuma, drops in one of the teenager's comfy home, passes by the boy's befuddled mother, and goes up to the latter's room. He then proceeds to mercilessly beat up the boy, who begins to wail like a little child. Later, a peaceful barge boat passing beneath a bridge is pelted by empty soda cans, thrown by a bunch of foul-mouthed pre-schoolers. This is not the polite, circumspect Japan, all right, but a society seething with ugly hostility toward one another. Yet, we soon find out that Azuma, as played and directed by Kitano Takeshi, is no Dirty Harry. He is a much more enigmatic creature.

Indeed, one of the most disturbing yet intriguing things about Violent Cop is that Kitano continuously sabotages any inkling on the part of the viewer to rally toward, sympathize with or even connect emotionally to its troubled protagonist. The patented "Beat Takeshi" look, a poker-faced non-expression (which is apparently a product of his extreme shyness) is cannily deployed by his directorial self to essentially prevent the viewers from second-guessing Azuma's internal psychology. One of the effects of this strategy is that the film is completely devoid of the kind of sentimental, macho bullcrap that often stands for the "rage against the system" in standard Asian crime films (for instance, in contemporary South Korean cinema). Often, Azuma appears completely indistinguishable from a sociopathic thug. He is ostensibly a good buddy to the corrupt cop Iwaki and at least attempts to care for his mentally ill sister, but as played by Kitano, the viewers cannot help but be suspicious about his true motives: when Iwaki shows up as a corpse hanging from a bridge, we are momentarily not sure if it was Azuma who actually killed him, not because of the story logic, but because the taciturn detective was the last person to see him on-screen (we never find out what the content of their conversation was, either). He seems entirely capable of committing a heinous crime himself, and displays no particular "personal code of honor." What he does possess, though, is a bucketful of charisma. Azuma definitely looks dangerous without the aid of Eastwood-like macho growls, and the fact that we cannot "read" his face or body language generates an odd kind of suspense. We are never sure what crazy stunt he will pull off next.

While the movie is no liberal indictment of a corrupt police system, it likewise fails to meet expectations of the conservative viewers who have come to see a movie in which a righteous cop doles out sadistic punishment to the criminal scum. When Azuma mercilessly pounds on suspects, his sister's boyfriends, or even hapless colleagues, the viewers are invited to either laugh at the utter absurdity of the violence that is never organically generated from the situational logic, or cringe at its sheer, dehumanizing randomness. An excellent example is the villain's-- reptilian drug dealer Kiyohiro, a frightening performance by the Korean-Japanese singer Hakuryu-- sudden attack on Azuma outside a movie-house. Kiyohiro, on the ground from the latter's fierce resistance, pulls out a gun. Azuma swiftly kicks his nemesis's wrist, and the bullet flies off hitting a wrong target, a young female bystander whose brain matter is graphically splashed all over the marquee. The scene is shocking, never failing to elicit shouts of surprise and disbelief among the viewers, but its emotional impact is ambivalent: it is like watching a horrific traffic accident rather than a life-and-death struggle between Good and Evil.

Director Kitano, however, never allows the film to degenerate into wallowing in meaningless and purposeless displays of violence. Through excellent but never show-offy filmmaking (except one or two passages in which slow motion is employed with a bit too much irony), he compels us to follow the story, and to coolly examine, rather than easily identify with, the character dynamics. He introduces his Zen-like "spaced" style, which in later films like Sonatine and Hana-Bi would invite comparisons with Robert Bresson and Ozu Yasujiro, dismantling the typical rhythm of a conventional thriller, showing his characters doing nothing or staring into empty space, or extending scenes (for instance, of Azuma walking around in that funny, vaguely ducky gait) beyond their dramatic necessity. In some cases, the effect does remind one of Stanley Kubrick's early works (especially Clockwork Orange, a film much admired by Kitano). Yet this method of cool, dry "zoological observation" stops, in my view, short of completely alienating the viewers.

Take one of Violent Cop's most notorioius and talked-about scenes, wherein the drug dealer Hashizume (Kawakami Ei) is viciously slapped at least a dozen times by the irate Azuma, who wants to know the source of the dope traffic, in an uncut, single take. The sequence is exceedingly uncomfortable to watch, as the viewers begin to identify with the ordeals suffered by the actor Kawakami rather than the diegetic character Hashizume. It is "real" and at the same time deliberately meta-diegetic, as the slapping looks so brutal that we begin to worry about the performer's safety ("Jeez, is Takeshi really slapping that poor guy?"). The effect is that, when Hashizume finally confesses in a raging outburst, he seems to be responding to the denigration of his being/character/role, momentarily conjoined, in the hands of Azuma/director Kitano, rather than to the pain. The affective outcome is unusual, far removed from the conventional "sympathy" we are supposed to feel toward either Hashizume or Azuma, but is definitely not indifference, either. This makes an interesting contrast to the scene of physical violence in Dirty Harry wherein Scorpio pays a black pugilist to beat him up so that he can claim that Harry Callahan physically abused him, which enlists the shock of violence to underlie deeply manipulative, evil character of the villain.  I don't want to make a big theoretical deal out of it, but what Violent Cop does is to draw the viewer's attention to the violence itself perpetrated on the human bodies, rather than "rationalizing" such violence in the name of plot advancement, or ideological satisfaction. 

The irony about everyday preponderance of violence is clearly underscored by Kume Daisaku's music, based on jazzy arrangements of Erik Satie. Key chase sequence in the middle of the movie is punctuated by this droll, playful music, heightening the ridiculousness of the very notion of an "action sequence." The film also makes excellent uses of back alleys and other non-glamorous locations throughout Tokyo. It entirely dispenses with the (good) countryside- (evil) city dichotomy.

The cast is uniformly good. Other than Kitano and Hakuryu, who had unfortunately been typecase in gangster roles after this pic, the former musician Kishibe Ittoku (best known for Oguri Kohei's Sting of Death 死の棘 [1995]) cuts a lanky, nonchalantly ruthless figure as Nito, the wealthy boss of the drug ring. He is seen to be presiding over the opening of a fancy restaurant, and treats Azuma's threats with well-practiced aplomb. Yet Nito is not above making a punching bag out of the face of his recalcitrant underling, carefully wiping off unseemly blood from the latter's face afterwards. A Kitano regular Ashikawa Makoto plays a rookie, haplessly caught between Azuma's insane antics and the police regulations, but the denouement surprises us by giving him a role that again subverts the convention of the genre. The only character that receives short shrift, not surprisingly, is Azuma's sister, Akari. It is clear that Kitano cut out a large chunk of background exposition concerning the brother-sister relationship, in order to prevent the viewer's emotional investment in Azuma. All the same, her character is used like a prop, as an object of gang rape by the villains to get back at Azuma: at least Kitano does not stoop to exploiting her mental condition.

Since Violent Cop, Kitano Takeshi has achieved an international fame and dabbled in many genres, but the movie has not lost much of its power to shock and disturb. It does require delicate handling before being unspooled in front of an unsuspecting audience, but it manages to put a kind of coldly hypnotic cinematic spell on most of them. Few can doubt the director's firm control of its elements, nor, when it comes right down to it, his artistic integrity, even if a sizable number of the viewers may not be able to "enjoy" the film in the usual sense.   

Blu Ray Presentation:  
Film Movement Classics. Region A. Video: widescreen 1.85:1, 1080p. Audio: Japanese Stereo. English (HOH) Subtitles. Supplements: Theatrical and U.S. trailers, an insert essay by Tom Vick. Street date: October 11, 2016. List price: $39.95.

Film Movement has released Violent Cop as a Blu Ray in a no-frills edition stateside. The presentation is good, if not spectacular, with fine sheets of grain over nighttime scenes and appropriately subdued contrast levels. Sometimes the camera shows prominent lens flares but that is not the problem with transfer. Color scheme is also somewhat pale, but again this is probably by design. Tom Vick contributes a nice, concise insert essay that introduces the essentials of production history and the unprecedented nature of the film as a Japanese genre film (He does quote from Aaron Gerow's authoritative study of Kitano's cinematic oeuvre, discussed below).  

Given the current international status of Kitano (even taking into consideration the opinion that he has been wildly overrated as a filmmaker), it would have been more appropriate if more substantial supplements were included. It would have been fascinating to get the lowdown on the circumstances of Kitano's taking over of the project, or on the filmmaking process seen from the POV of the supporting players, some of whom have subsequently gone on to productive careers (Bandai Visual's Japan-produced Blu Ray is also barebones, priced around $45, but surprisingly comes with English subtitles). 

By the way, the present Blu Ray edition has been subject to some unexpected online criticisms, due to its distinctive cover illustration in the mold of an underground American comic. It is perhaps understandable given the starkly minimalist poster for the movie (in Japan, a threatening glare from Beat Takeshi was quite sufficient to draw curious viewers into the theater), and the illustration does capture the hardcore film noir ambience of the film to a certain degree, but the main problem is the figures depicted simply do not resemble any of the characters. The green thug with a knife on the left does vaguely look like Kiyohiro, but who the heck is the guy in the middle with a cigarette butt in his mouth? No one remotely like him appears in the movie. I am willing to take a radical, off-off-Broadway visual concept for a Blu Ray cover, but wouldn't it have to indicate at least some connections with the personages in the film?  

Can we use it in class? Obviously the undergraduates need to be forewarned about the dry and shocking nature of the violence in the film. I wouldn't recommend using the film as a source of sociological or anthropological insight into the pre-Burst Bubble Japanese lives, other than as a corrective to the hoary myth of Japan as an eternally peaceful, communal nation. Which is not to say that Violent Cop is particularly unrealistic in terms of depicting the late '80s Japanese society. The "yakuza" that, according to some movies at least, seems to be the dominant political force in Japan (yes, this is meant to be a snarky dis), is conspicuously absent in this film. Neither do the cops here behave as if drug addiction is a unique American problem.

The film should be a lot more significant as a resource for a Cinema Studies course. The best text to assign along with the film is a section on it from Aaron Gerow's Kitano Takeshi (London: British Film Institute, 2007), a concise and knowledgeable interpretation of all of Kitano's films up to his remake of Zatoichi (2003). Professor Gerow presents a highly readable, cogent analysis of the film's radically minimalist approach, explaining to the potential viewers of the film how its "off-putting" qualities are in fact an outcome of directorial intentions. He discusses in detail (pp. 69-76) a relatively unimportant scene in which Azuma is asked to resign by the District Chief, and persuasively illustrates how the way Kitano cuts and arranges shots deconstructs drama and genre conventions (and, I might add, a sense of righteousness on both character's parts). 

In the end, though, Gerow's interpretation is auteurist, reading Violent Cop predominantly as a text both distances the viewers from "Beat" Takeshi the comedian, and creates an entirely new leading man for the cineaste Kitano Takeshi. This part may not be so easy to comprehend for those who are not privy to Kitano's amazing and unequalled run as a mega-entertainer in Japan. I highly recommend Professor Gerow's study to any student of cinema seriously interested in Kitano Takeshi. 

Launching Q Branch Academia Reviews

My day job still does not allow me enough time to properly do this, but I know that I will never get around to getting the present blog up and running again if I kept waiting for "enough time." One of my original ideas for the revived Q Branch was to set it up as a critical database cum personal notations for the audio-visual materials that to be used for my classes. Well, as it turns out, my students at UCD are less and less interested in watching motion pictures in class, and the equipment for media presentation are no longer well taken care of. My showings of The Epitaph and The Host during my Korean History class last year were met with student enthusiasm, but unfortunately the DVD player went dead in the middle of showing the latter, to my acute embarrassment. Sigh…

Honestly, given the crappy situation with humanities curriculum in a university in today's world, I don't know if I will get around before my retirement a course totally devoted to Asian movies. But for now, I am going to operate under the assumption that, if I write about those Asian (Japanese, Korean, Chinese and Southeast Asian) films, not just about the films themselves but regarding the accessibility and quality of the vehicles in which they are presented (to wit, Blu Rays and DVDs) and, most importantly, about how they could be deployed as instructional resources, somebody out there might find such jottings useful. Of course this public service orientation needs not be taken too seriously by anyone who reads my entries. I am doing this mostly for my own pleasure, partly to show off my collection, and partly to opinionate about other people's artistic achievements (which, wouldn't you know it, is always a great fun!). But a part of me, believe it or not, genuinely cares about what the motion pictures, animated features, Korean TV dramas and other media products could
really teach the young 'uns about not just the Asian societies, cultures, histories, but the human condition as we know it. 

So here is what I will do: in addition to my usual analysis and opinionating, I will incorporate into the reviews of these select films/animated features/whatnot my musings about their potentials as classroom teaching resources. Can we ("instructors") actually show hyper-violent, disturbing thrillers such as Violent Cop or Battle Royale in classroom settings, and if we do, what could students be able to "learn" from them? Can we assign any cinematic version of Chushingura in an early modern Japanese history course as a legitimate interpretation of the changing ethos of the 18th century Japan? These and other questions might be addressed, to the best of my ability, in these entries devoted to the Asian media products. 

Oh, and I decided to classify these reviews under the "Q Branch Academia" rubric, inspired by the Arrow Video's "Academy" line of classic titles. Pretentious, I know, but what can I say? Pretentiousness is a sine qua non for most of my "productive" activities. So onward I march!

The first title to be covered under this new "Q Branch Academia" category isViolent Cop, Kitano "Beat" Takeshi's feature-film directorial debut. Don't tell me you expected a Miyazaki Hayao title, eh? (Not to worry, a Studio Gibhli Blu Ray may yet be covered in these pages sooner than later, after all)