Wednesday, July 22, 2009

"Battle Royale" is violence done right (like Hong Kong films).

I miss Hong Kong films. Much like a departed friend, memories pop into my head and I realize life's a bit emptier now. NYC's annual "HK Film Festival" was a must-see, and I want to cry as I recall Jackie Chan's work pre-1997. That HK spirit lives on in a Japanese flick, "Battle Royale." [sorry if that offends both the Chinese and Japanese]

Apparently, 2000's "Battle Royale" has some behind-the-scenes depth. Based on a 1999 novel, it spawned two manga series, and a sequel was filmed three years later. "BR" also has a cultish fanbase. The Flaming Lips used footage from "BR" throughout one tour. Tarantino cast one of the actresses as "Gogo Yubari" in "Kill Bill 1." Posters for the movie appeared in "Lost" and Shaun of the Dead." In "Juno," our heroine's room had a pin with the film's logo. I don't really give a damn about any of that.

The "Kill Bill" tracksuit in '00

In 2002, I hunted down a black market copy and was well-rewarded. Since my first glimpse of John Woo's "The Killer," I've seldom seen the type of balletic violence we're treated to here. As a better compliment, every aspect of this movie oozes quality. Like the best HK flicks, there's thoughtful dialogue, charismatic actors, and great characterization. This movie is more than a mere grotesque blood-fest.

Readers, brace yourself for another insane Japanese plot! It's the near future, and Japan is a mess. The economy is in tatters; unemployment and truancy are at record levels. Unruly youths are such a problem, the government resorts to insanity: every year, one random 9th-11th grade class is abducted onto an abandoned island. They have three days to kill each other, and only one can leave. If two survive, they'll both die on Day Four.

last year's winner

All students are outfitted with collars - collars that explode in case of removal, escape, or staying in ever-changing "forbidden zones." They're given a map, compass, and basic rations. Loudspeakers give a tally and dictate which zones are off-limits. There's one more, deeply-sickening, twist: the victims are also randomly assigned weapons. It's Darwinian on a depressing scale - bow and arrows, a pot lid, a pistol, a claw hammer. Some are scarcely even "weapons."

The logical flaws could derail the whole movie. For one thing, selecting classes by lottery won't weed out the worst teens. What if they're all pacifist glee club kids? For another, the system isn't secret - winners are shown by the press. Wouldn't this encourage children to become experts at violence?

Further still, the opening text claims that "truancy" has risen to extreme rates. But the prospect of sudden death would only encourage absenteesm and rightly so! Regardless, those issues never detract from the film.

The reason is the movie's focus on the relationships between the 42 9th graders here. Their portrayal is stunningly-real. You will remember the hopes, fears, friendships, and grudges from your own school years. The young cast do a great job in making both poignant and bitter moments work.

In your mind, take 40+ teenagers and place them in this situation - what you see feels perfectly credible. Remember that kid who was always jealous of you? Imagine giving him/her a shotgun saying, "now kill or die." This aspect is all the more impressive since the film was made by 70 year-old Kinji Fukasaku, a man who clearly identifies with youngsters.

There are touching character moments, but the emotional tone varies. All the while, the film's only old voice is the man that anchors it: the well-known Takeshi "Beat" Tikano as the doomed kids' teacher. A frustrated figure of old Japan, he's really enjoying this contest because one student attacked him.

And amidst humor, passion and drama, violence erupts often - violence that is scary and intense. At times, it is harsh, horrifying, or brief. And sometimes it plays out like a lovely, macabre, dance. It's mesmerizing.

That last aspect of "BR" is what reminds me most of HK film. I knew skeptics who disparaged kung-fu movies - until I showed them what Jackie Chan could do with 4 opponents and a ladder. I've longed for the days when Chow-Yun Fat, HK cinema's Cary Grant, would flow through a John Woo gun battle. Those were precursors for the "Matrix"-style scenes used so often today.

I'm proud to say that the same ugly thrill is in force here. It makes sense that the director earned a great rep with yakuza and samurai films.

"Battle Royale" is the best type of violent flick. It has a brain, a soul, and uses every scene well. There is more to this movie than blood and "Go-Go Yubari." Keep in mind the many parallels to "A Clockwork Orange." Think about the words by the only older figure here, and what they say about the divide between generations.

Think, too, about the universality of teen problems - these Japanese kids have the same frustrations and tensions as American students. And go into this knowing that in 1999, Japan tried to ban the book - something which only generated massive interest in it. The same happened with the movie the following year. I love it when attempted censorship serves to create greater curiosity.

If you're not averse to violent (or seriously-disturbed) films, I can't recommend this picture more. I like it so much that I won't include a trailer to kill any of the surprises. Sit down with a friend and relish every moment of this. And check out that nifty logo. Pretty classy for something evil, huh?

1 comment:

  1. Great movie! You wrote a really cool summary...


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