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Sunday, January 5, 2014

Unforgiven (2013, Japanese)

I didn’t think I’d say this but Sang-il Lee’s Unforgiven is at least as good as Clint Eastwood’s 1992 classic. With the same general characters and plot, the remake adds some stunning visuals. The archetypal white horse dead in the snow is as powerful an image of nihilism as we’ll ever see. That’s rhymed later by the white bottle of horse-manure hooch that the reformed and now relapsed killer Jubei drains and tosses to the snow and his old war-mate (the Morgan Freeman sub) tortured, killed then left in the frost.   
The film makes witty nods to the original, like giving the replacement of Richard Harris’ dandy a black bowler hat. A thin, overly buttoned character replaces Saul Rubinek’s pulp writer but he remains an opportunistic coward. 
The Japanese setting — 1880s Hakkaido — makes for some crucial differences. The violence is ratcheted up significantly both because of the gore endemic to Samurai swordplay and from the cataclysmic destruction that the nation’s atomic bombings have stamped on the cultural psyche. 
The film also adds the bitter tribal tension between the privileged Wa and the persecuted Ainu. Jubei has a scene with his Ainu father-in-law who regrets that his grandchildren aren’t learning the language. The remake also makes the swaggering young pretend-killer an Ainu. His itch, cockiness and teary admission of humble origins recall the Mifune character in The Seven Samurai
Where Eastwood closed on the possibility that his Will Munny took his children to a merchant’s life in San Francisco, here we get no hint of Jubei’s future. Instead he sends the Ainu kid and the scarred whore to his farm, with the reward money. The suggestion is that with his reversion to his old killer self he no longer deserves to serve his wife’s memory and to father his children. With the reward and the children he gives the young killer and the woman their chance for redemption. She removes herself from the prostitute’s shame and hunger for vengeance, he from the wrong-headed attraction to macho killing.This is a harder moral position than the original, in keeping with the Japanese code of honour.  
     Eastwood’s film brilliantly questioned his own persona’s career of film violence. The Japanese context provides a parallel twist. As it dramatizes the inescapable cycle of violence the film could be read as an argument against Japan’s re-militarizing.   
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