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WCS 2012 Reviews: CORIOLANUS, ONCE UPON A TIME IN ANATOLIA & HARA-KIRI: DEATH OF A SAMURAI 3D

After getting off to a strong start last week, the World Cinema Showcase kicked it up a notch in Auckland over the past weekend with a terrific selection of foreign films. I caught Ralph Fiennes’ modern adaptation of Shakespeare’s Coriolanus on Saturday, followed by Nuri Bilge Ceylan’s Turkish drama Once Upon a Time in Anatolia and Takashi Miike’s Harakiri remake Hara-Kiri: Death of a Samurai 3D on Sunday, and you can find reviews of each below. Another highlight of the past week was a special screening I attended of Wolfgang Petersen’s classic 1981 war film Das Boot on Tuesday, which began with an insightful introduction from composer Klaus Doldinger who was in town to perform with his jazz group Passport. It was great to see such an iconic film on the big screen (even if the print was rather damaged), and Das Boot still holds up remarkably well as one of the greatest war films ever made.

CORIOLANUS (Dir. Ralph Fiennes)

Ralph Fiennes makes his directorial début with Coriolanus, the story of a revered and feared Roman General who is at odds with the city of Rome and its people. The film is a modern adaptation of one of Shakespeare’s lesser-known tragedies, set in “a place calling itself Rome,” which could pass for just about anywhere but was in fact shot in Belgrade, Serbia. Fiennes stars as Caius Martius ‘Coriolanus’, a near-invincible soldier who – following yet another victorious battle over his sworn enemy, Tullus Aufidius (Gerard Butler), in Corioles – is pushed by his controlling and ambitious mother Volumnia (Vanessa Redgrave) to seek the exalted and powerful position of Consul of Rome. However, despite advice from his smooth-talking mentor Menenius (Brian Cox), the arrogant Coriolanus is unwilling to ingratiate himself with the masses whose votes he needs in order to secure the office. When Tribunes Brutus (Paul Jesson) and Sicinius (James Nesbitt) scheme to turn public opinion against Coriolanus, his angry outburst prompts a riot that culminates in his expulsion from Rome. The banished hero then allies himself with Aufidius out of spite, forsaking all and plotting vengeance against the city.

Right from the outset, as he commands a raucous protest scene with just a glare, it’s clear why Fiennes chose this lesser-known work as his directorial début: it’s themes of popular discontent are so timeless they could have been pulled from the headlines of today’s newspapers. When the film opened in Europe early last year, comparison’s were made to the Arab Spring; months later in the US, reviewers couldn’t help but find similarities to the burgeoning Occupy Wall Street movement. Fiennes and screenwriter John Logan have crafted a tight adaptation of Shakespeare’s second longest play, cleverly using TV talk shows, panel discussions, street graffiti etc. to establish much of the backstory, while still retaining Shakepeare’s rich, dense literary language. Fiennes delivers one of his best performances as the brutal, graceless Coriolanus, with impeccable phrasing to match an incredibly physical performance, visually evoking Marlon Brando’s iconic madman in Apocalypse Now in one early scene with his eyes shining as blood streaks his shaved head. The stellar supporting cast are equally impressive, particularly Vanessa Redgrave (Shakespeare runs in her blood) and Brian Cox, who is in scene-stealing form here, not to mention the under-utilised Jessica Chastain as Coriolanus’ adoring wife Virgilia, and Gerard Butler, who reminds audiences that he can do more than dull action hero and romantic comedy clichés. Coriolanus is packed with more violence and explosive action scenes than any other Shakespeare story, which are gloriously filmed by The Hurt Locker cinematographer Barry Ackroyd, and while the film is uneven at times, Fiennes has made one hell of a directorial début here. In fact, if you didn’t know otherwise, you might assume it was the work of a master, as Coriolanus is one of the most cinematic, resonant and purely entertaining Shakespeare films I’ve seen — right up there with Richard Loncraine’s Richard III, which is high praise.

RATING: A-

Watch the trailer for Coriolanus below. Check out its WCS screening dates here.

ONCE UPON A TIME IN ANATOLIA (Dir. Nuri Bilge Ceylan)

Turkish filmmaker Nuri Bilge Ceylan has been a respected name at festival circuits for the past decade, particularly following his 2008 film Three Monkeys (Üç Maymun), a strange and deliberately paced detective story which left a lasting impression on me and won him the Best Director Award at Cannes. Ceylan has followed that up with an equally strange and deliberately paced crime drama called Once Upon a Time in Anatolia – also a Cannes winner, sharing the Grand Jury Prize with The Kid with a Bike last year — the events of which were based on the true experiences of his co-writer, Ercan Kesal. Beginning in the dead of night, a group of men — including Police Commissar Naci (Yilmaz Erdogan), Prosecutor Nusret (Taner Birsel), Doctor Cemal (Muhammet Uzuner), and a murder suspect named Kenan (Firat Tanis) — drive through the gloomy Anatolian countryside, the winding roads and rolling hills lit only by the headlights of their cars. They are searching for a buried corpse, which Kenan has promised to lead them to, but his memory is hazy from drinking and the indistinct landscape offers no help. As the night drags on, one failed stop after another, details about the murder gradually emerge and the investigators’ own secrets, frustrations and hypocrisies come to light through fascinating and often existential conversations which chiefly occur with the handsome and intelligent Doctor Cemal.

The title of Once Upon a Time in Anatolia is obviously a nod to Sergio Leone’s 1968 masterpiece Once Upon a Time in the West, but aside from some fantastic faces and landscapes, this film has less in common with that most epic of westerns and more in common with Russian author Anton Chekhov (who is quoted several times throughout) and filmmaker Andrei Tarkovsky. Like much of Tarkovsky’s mythical, hypnotic works (SolarisStalker), Ceylon’s film is an ambling, metaphysical epic which requires much patience from the viewer. It’s a road movie with no clear destination; a slow-motion police procedural with inconclusive results. That much should tell you if Once Upon a Time in Anatolia is your sort of film or not, because it’s certainly not to everybody’s taste. But if you’re game, this film will reward your patience with utterly gorgeous images, profound insights on existence and loss, great performances, and original, memorable characters. Ceylan has made great films in the past but Once Upon a Time in Anatolia is his masterpiece, a deep and haunting piece of work which no discerning filmgoer should miss.

RATING: A

Watch the trailer for Once Upon a Time in Anatolia below. Check out its WCS screening dates here.

HARA-KIRI: DEATH OF A SAMURAI 3D (Dir. Takashi Miike)

Prolific Japanese gonzo filmmaker Takashi Miike wowed festival audiences last year with 13 Assassins, an elegant and surprisingly restrained samurai action film which was one of my favourites of 2011. Miike has followed that up with another remake, only this time instead of an obscure 1960s jidaigeki film, he is tackling Masaki Kobayashi’s 1962 masterpiece Harakiri. Kobayashi’s film is widely celebrated as being one of the first major Japanese films to criticise the hypocrisy of the samurai honour code (it won the Special Jury Prize at Cannes in 1963), which was highly controversial at the time, but the reasoning behind remaking it now eludes me. For some bizarre reason (one can only assume money), Hara-Kiri: Death of a Samurai was shot in 3D, making it the first such film to compete at the Cannes Film Festival. Hara-Kiri begins with a poverty-stricken ronin, Hanshiro (Ebizô Ichikawa), who requests to commit ritual suicide at the proud House of Ii, run by the headstrong Kageyu (Koji Yakusho). In an attempt to dissuade Hanshiro’s wish, Kageyu recounts the tragic story of a young ronin named Motome (Eita), who met a horrific, shameful end in their courtyard two months prior after being called on his “suicide bluff”. However, Hanshiro remains true to his decision, and at the moment of hara-kiri, he makes a last wish to be assisted by either of Kageyu’s top three samurai, all of whom are suspiciously absent. Demanding an explanation, Kageyu then learns of Hanshiro’s connection to Motome, and eventually the true intentions for his visit to their house are revealed.

Miike has a reputation for violent overstatement (see: Ichi the KillerGozuDead or Alive trilogy), but Hara-Kiri: Death of a Samurai is his most restrained effort to date, even when compared to 13 Assassins or The Bird People in China. But while this newfound restraint worked magnificently in 13 Assassins, it makes Hara-Kiri a rather tedious and frustrating watch, and fans expecting splashes of Miike’s trademark violence will be disappointed. Where Kobayashi’s classic film was masterful at creating tension, constantly cutting between the backstory and the present retelling, Miike’s version sags with a lengthy second act which is completely backstory and regrettably featuring cutesy child actors, losing any tension in the process. Hara-Kiri is Miike’s first film shot in 3D, and you might expect him to have some fun with the new format and deliver eye-popping, visceral displays of violence. Sadly, his film is surprisingly tame and every bit as sober as the original, and while it’s gorgeously shot with beautiful sets, the 3D adds absolutely nothing save for a few drops of snow (while darkening interior shots throughout). Despite convincing lead performances from Ebizô Ichikawa and 13 Assassins‘ Koji Yakusho, Hara-Kiri: Death of a Samurai can only be recommended as a handsome, colourful homage to Harakiri, and I would suggest that anyone who hasn’t seen the original film does so first.

RATING: C

Watch the (non-subbed) trailer for Hara-Kiri: Death of a Samurai 3D below. Check out its WCS screening dates here.

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