Wednesday, September 22, 2010

TIFF Review - Bunraku

Mix a Noir, Western, and Samurai film, place it in a pop-up book, and make it look like it was all created by Guy Laliberté - that's Bunraku.

In a future where guns have been banned, violence has returned to the old forms of melée combat. The martial arts, swordplay, and straight-up street brawling are the weapons of choice. Within this world, new rules apply. A mobster can rule a city with a small army, but be challenged by any gang of twenty. The Woodcutter Nicola (Ron Perlman) owns this town.

A vicious killer himself, he has 9 lieutenants who go by the names Killer #2-10, ranked by their ability and who they killed to move up the ladder.

All of this is explained in the opening sequence, where Killer #2 (Kevin McKidd) single-handedly takes down a gang of 20 freedom fighters who want to free their town from the grasp of "the most powerful man east of the Atlantic".

A drifter (Josh Hartnett) comes into town, along with Yoshi (Gackt), both with similar destinations, but different ideas on how to get there. The Drifter is a brawler with incredibly fast hands who is seeking vengeance. Yoshi is a Samurai in search of a family heirloom. Naturally, both roads lead to Nicola.

The local bartender (Woody Harrelson) has his own history with Nicola, but is injured and old. In these two men he sees his chance at retribution, and he manipulates them into becoming partners in their endeavours.

An original tale? Not on paper. Mixing a drifer out of a Western and a Samurai out of the world of Kurosawa isn't that much of a stretch, as the genres share themes. The noir aspect adds a veneer of style that ties it together. But what truly makes Bunraku worthwhile is the visuals. "Bunraku" is a traditional form of Japanese puppet theatre, and the movie takes place in this world. Surreal landscapes and surroundings, transitions through comic books, fight scenes out of side-scrolling video games, and a world that looks made out of paper mâché makes for a visual feast. The fight scenes move between quick and dirty brawls to choreographed clashes of style, to dance routines disguised as efficient fighting techniques. By the time the acrobats start kicking cowboy-ass, you may believe you're watching a Cirque du Soleil presentation.

Stylistically, Bunraku fills me with the same hope as Scott Pilgrim vs The World. It's original, modern, relevant, and an important part of the presentation. It's not style for style's sake, but a valid representation of the ideas within the film. If cinema continues to move in this direction, it could easily reinvigorate a generation raised on interactive fiction, games, and graphic novels to enjoy movies.

The story falls apart towards the end - the long road to the climax eats up so much time that it would be a three-hour film if it finished at the same pace. That isn't to say it's a slow trip, but a full one. Fights, explanations, poker games, synecdoche, and backstory are all presented. The ending simply wraps them all up. But this shortcoming of the film can be forgiven for the visual feast presented throughout.

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