Monday, October 5, 2009

TIFF Review - Kamui

The Legend of Kamui is a classic Manga from the 1960's and 70's. Yoichi Sai has brought the first of these tales to the screen in Kamui.

The tale is of Kamui, a low-born ninja in the days of feudal Japan who grows tired of being forced to kill women and children as ordered by his clan. He seeks to escape, but to escape the ninja is to die. While on the run, he encounters a fisherman who has committed a crime against the local Lord. Together they escape to the fisherman's village by the sea.

Kamui softens as he gets to know the local people, and discovers a secret that one of them has hidden for years. The fisherman's wife is aware of where Kamui comes from, and fears the destruction he could bring to their lives.

I suppose it's obvious by now I didn't really care much about the plot. I chose this for one reason - Ninjas. That automatically gives this a leg up on non-ninja movies. These aren't your dad's ninjas though. Black face masks and strings with poison running down them aren't particularly common here. No, the ninja in this tale are more akin to mercenaries and rogues, following the laws of their clan. All the ninja are outcasts from society. They still kick ass in several ways however.

Sadly, the choice to go with computer assistance in the fighting effects is a detriment here. The director is a big fan of the big-budget American effects films, and was hoping to replicate them here. But the effects are amateurish in comparison. Where Hollywood's nearly passed the uncanny valley in CG action scenes, this movie is rife with distorted figures and overly-fake attempts at realism.

Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon visualized fantastical martial arts with wires and grace, but Kamui uses cut-and-paste layers and odd warping of people to simulate jumps and landings. The sharks (yah, ninjas AND sharks... and pirates too for that matter) look particularly shiny and seem to change size as needed. It might have benefited from a more artistic take on these scenes. If you can't afford CG or wire-work that doesn't distract from the film, then you should go whole-hog. Animated fight scenes, trick editing and camera work, any number of alternate methods could have been used.

That said, when the fight scenes DO work, they work fairly well.

Yoichi Sai commented that he refuses to alter his movies for North American audiences. This is obvious from the painfully typical overacting I've seen in other Japanese films. There's always the "ugly" guy trying to win the affections of a girl, and he's often portrayed as seemingly autistic. In this case, the character fits the mold as usual. The other incredibly obvious trope is the overdone temper tantrums. For minimal reasons, fully grown people will start flailing and stomping like a petulant child, and storming off like a 10 year-old in a school play pretending to be angry. The conniving Lord's wife is a mess of sneers and evil grins that are comical in their execution. Subtlety is reserved for the stars as they stand stoically determining what path they'll take, and the main players actually seem capable of acting without overacting.

Kamui is a decent movie, but the worst of the fest for me so far. It's funny at times, the fights are solid, and would have been quite impressive if they didn't rely on bad CG so much, and the story is easy enough to follow. The central figures are all well done, but are handicapped by the overzealous and poorly-acted third-tier characters. It could have been so much more though if the director had picked one direction or the other instead of going halfway. If you lack the budget for FX, and you're going to have performances that could be melted into a nice fondue, then you should throw away ideas of big-budget worldwide success and make a fun movie that revels in its flaws instead of pretending they're perfectly acceptable, therefore accentuating them.

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