Sunday, 25 January 2015

Unforgiven (2013)

For better or worse, Lee Sang-il's retelling of Unforgiven accounts for a profound psychological shift akin to transformation. At journey's end Ken Watanabe's Jubei finds himself staring down a familiar shithole, drunk and out for blood. Lee's film treats this ferocity as a dead end for the character, rather than an aspect of his personality.

Clint Eastwood's William Munny placed himself in a desperate, suicidal situation and reacted with supernatural calm. This is what allows him to clear a bordello. He doesn't hurry, he doesn't make mistakes. Jubei has instead snapped, becoming a kind of demon. Lee's stormy, deteriorating mise en scene suggesting all the great damned Samurai from Ryunosuke Tsukue in The Sword of Doom to Ogami Itto in the Lone Wolf and Cub cycle.

Eastwood and Lee's films differ in how the hero is communicated to us. After his massacre Munny seems to readjust instantly, compartmentalising his violence. It's easy for us to accept this too - the confrontation was cathartic, happening in response to a friend's murder. It's satisfying, it packs you off to bed after your umpteenth viewing. Lee's film is the opposite.

Jubei's moment almost seems like a fumble. Firearms play a key role - always disappointing in a chanbara - and Watanabe sleepwalks through the encounter. Jubei's violence is slow, a deliberate monster in the midst of amateurs. It's messy, more like a scuffle, designed to not quite satisfy. Men aren't cleaved by swords, weapons bite on bone and break. Jubei isn't the same kind of man as Munny either, he can't turn it on or off. Once he's tasted blood he's keyed in, fated to wander, seething, until his batteries run dry.

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