Sep 7, 2009
Twilight Samurai (2002)
Released also as: Tasogare Seibei
Cast: Hiroyuki Sanada (as Seibei Iguchi) and Rie Miyazawa (as Ms. Tomoe)
Director: Yòji Yamada
Genre: Drama, Romance, Action
Run Time: 129 minutes
Set shortly before the start of the Boshin War (1868-69) in shogunate Japan, Seibei Iguchi is a low-level samurai whose sick wife just died leaving him 2 little girls and an ageing mother. With just 50 kokus of rice (1 koku = 150 kilos) in his stipend, life is hard. He is referred to as Twilight Seibei by his colleagues in the grain warehouse because he leaves at twilight to look after his 2 children and mother instead of the drinking sake with them. The dull life shifts into high gear when his childhood crush shows up in the village while the young lord of the clan dies, causing succession struggles.
Hard Life for a Samurai
Samurai movies almost always glorify the feared samurai as the invincible super hero who leaves death in his wake with a slash of his katana. Not this one. This movie portrays a petty samurai and his economic struggles. With a low stipend, he uses the money to care for his household instead of purchasing a kimono or paying for a bath. He is unkept and smells as bad as he looks. Except for his being a samurai, he can be mistaken for anyone just hovering above the poverty line. Life is real (and not Hollywoodized) for this samurai...and that's one of the movie's magic.
Blue Balls Love
Sorry, I could have used repressed love or holding-back love, but let's call a spade a spade. The love story in this movie is Blue Balls! But hey, it's blue balls like there's nothing like it. Subdued, repressed, and almost agonizing, Seibei refused marriage to the love of his life to spare his would-be bride the hardship of stepping down the social status ladder. Noble! Blue Balls!
For a samurai movie, this one only showed 2 short sword fights. But again, they are classic and real - better than any wired or computer-aided action scene. The fights didn't last too long and they were shot in full frame (not stitched up series of action shots)...just a few strokes until someone is defeated. If you've seen a kendo match, the fight choreography was scripted to look similar to it.
This movie does not insult your intelligence. It catures so many facets of reality, but remains entertaining as well. While it had a slow start, the pace gradually built up until near the end of the movie, keeping you glued to your seat. Acting was superbly underacting. Writing was tight and crisp. I can't fault this movie...well, maybe, better cinematography since Japan's country scenery is lyrical poetry...and the movie didn't capitalize on that.
I thought I'd just comment on the movie, but here I am, feeling too compelled to comment about the local mainstream film industry as well. When I came back to the Philippines from a 20-year absence, I was itching to catch up on local films I missed. I asked around for the new classics and was dumbfounded when the movies referred to me were Lino Brocka's. Brocka has been dead for nearly as long as I was gone! Haven't we produced good quality films since then? I watched a few new recommended movies and came away disappointed. These were essentially the same movie types of 20 years ago...just younger stars this time, but same old formula, same old style, same old methodology. Movie-making has grown leaps and bounds in Hollywood and Korea while we got stuck in a time warp.
What happened in the last 20 years?
I asked a few in the industry how this came about. The answers I got were varied - that we have neither the technology nor the budget to compete with Hollywood, that there is no market for good quality films (that only the masses remain a viable market, so cheesy drama or slaptick comedy will do), that the Chinese hold a cartel and dictate what's to be shown, etc. They may remain plausible at face value, but I had this unsettling feeling they were excuses.
Now, after seeing this movie, this low budget, low technology movie, the local no-budget/low-technology reasons are reduced to flimsy excuses. Twilight Samurai proved that good acting, a good story with universal appeal that's craftilly done is what it takes to make a good movie - the big budget, the high technology are just enhancers, not deal breakers. With the movie's universal appeal, rich or poor can very well enjoy this movie - afterall, regardless of one's station in life, we ALL have a common denominator, right? Well, Twilight Samurai addresses that common denominator. Chinese cartel? If that is true, then the bottom line is paramount. Produce a good movie and the money will follow. So much for the cartel angle.
Every time I hear someone in the movie industry talk about the reasons why we can't produce good movies, I have 2 words to say: Twilight Samurai!
ps - Note I specifically mentioned local mainstream film industry. The alternative are the indie films. That's really where I see promise and honest effort in guality movie making. I watched the film festival in '04 and was disappointed. I watched the festival again in '05 and was surprised at how much they've progressed. Nearly all the indie films that came after that pushed the bencemark a tad higher. They may not be up there yet with the major studios, but they're getting there. But to me, the operative word is honest effort in improving what's already on the table. I hope the indie film makers get more support in their challenges.
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