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Takeshi Kitano is Japan ‘s true ‘King of All Media.’ A cultural icon in his home country as an actor, director, poet, comedian, painter and newspaper journalist, Kitano is best known to the rest of the world as a minimalist craftsman of gritty, nihilistic gangster films. In “Blood and Bones,” Kitano steps in front of the camera under the direction of someone other than himself for the first time in nearly a decade, and gives a career affirming performance as one of the most unlikable characters ever seen on screen.
Kitano plays Shunpei Kim, a Korean immigrant who comes to Osaka , Japan in 1920 as a teenager. Working at a fish paste roll store, Kim claws his way out of poverty to become a father and leader in the immigrant community where he lives. But this is not the heart warming story of the downtrodden pulling themselves up by their bootstraps. What we see very quickly is that Kim is a thoroughly malevolent brute who secures his position as community leader not through benevolence and accommodation, but by violence and intimidation.
The very first scene of “Blood and Bones” shows Kim brutally beating and raping his wife in front of his children. He cheats on his wife flagrantly, keeping his mistress in a house down the street and bringing her into his ‘family’ after he inevitably knocks her up. He comes home drunk late at night swinging a hatchet about the house and beats his children, even throwing his daughter down a flight of stairs. At his fish roll factory, Kim keeps his employees in line through similar acts of intimidation. When one of his employees asks for overtime pay, Kim responds by burning his face with a hot coal. As his business grows, Kim expands his enterprise to loan sharking, grimly prowling the neighborhood carrying a big stick and mercilessly flogging all who owe him money.
Based on a semi-autobiographic novel by Korean-Japanese author Yang Sok Gil, “Blood and Bones” has a sprawling, epic scope with a feel similar to a Bernardo Bertolucci film. “Blood and Bones” covers six decades and runs nearly two and a half hours, and can’t be described as anything but epic. And yet, despite the grand scope, director Yoichi Sai manages to give “Blood and Bones” a closed and almost claustrophobic feel. He achieves this by keeping the story anchored to one immigrant community; in fact, one street.
As the story progresses through the decades, we see Kim’s family grow, and his sons, daughters and mistresses have children of their own. But few leave the neighborhood and soon Kim’s extended family all but occupies the entire street. Not by choice, mind you, but by the sheer force of Kim’s will. The years of terrorizing both his family and his neighbors have created a pervasive sense of hopelessness and self-imposed isolation amongst everyone around Kim. Their spirits have been so thoroughly broken by Kim’s abuse that the thought of simply leaving never occurs to them. As the decades roll by, nothing seems to ever change, with only passing planes or a new car signifying that time has, in fact, passed.
Although “Blood and Bones” is constructed as a character study, it’s really just a backdrop for a smoldering performance by Kitano, with the rest of the cast simply fading into the background as Kitano unleashes a career’s worth of fury on the audience. Director Sai waited six years to cast Kitano in the role, knowing he’d be the perfect actor to play Kim. And it’s no surprise, really. When you boil the character down to its essence, Kim is like all the characters Kitano has ever played, with the exception of an emotional vacuum in Kim that is not a characteristic of Kitano’s other characters.
The nearest parallel to Kitano’s Kim is Nishi in “Hana Bi,” a man who swings between extreme love and extreme anger and takes out these emotions on the people around him. But unlike Nishi, Kim is a man completely incapable of love or tenderness, and knows only anger and violence. And unfortunately that’s the movie’s greatest shortcoming. We get almost no insight into why Kim is the way that he is, with the exception of some nasty looking scars on his back, indicating that Kim may have been the victim of some sort of abuse or persecution in Korea . As a result, the audience has little chance of understanding or sympathizing with Kim.
And outside of Kim, there’s precious little else to “Blood and Bones”. In the first decade, Kim beats people up and has a mistress. In decade two, Kim is still beating people up and has another mistress. And so on. The only wrinkles to the story come in the form of the various calamities that befall Kim’s family, but after a while there’s only so much heartache the audience can take. The fact that Kim remains an intriguing figure throughout the film is a testament to the power and intensity of Kitano’s performance, but unfortunately that’s not quite enough for a film this long.
Yoichi Sai (director) / Wui Sin Chong, Yoichi Sai (screenplay), Sogil Yan (novel)
CAST: Takeshi Kitano …. Jyombion Kim
Hirofumi Arai …. Masao
Tomoko Tabata …. Hanako Kim
Jo Odagiri …. Chan-myung
Kyoka Suzuki …. Yonhi Li
Mihoko Suino …. Harumi
Shigemori Matsu …. Nobuyoshi
YÃ»ko Nakamura …. Kiyoko Yamanashi