CIFF Diary: Day 6, pt. 3 - Blood Vomit Ballet!

10/12 - As part of the "After Dark" programming the CIFF screened Katsuhito Ishii's new Warner Brothers release Smuggler.  The film had a strong turnout on Wednesday night, and aside from a finale that failed to pay off entirely (perhaps making sacrifices in hopes of a sequel?) Smuggler achieved moments of fight combat brilliance that are definitely worth the price of admission.  I attended the screening with my creative collaborator and Japanese cinema enthusiast Brian Morgan, who once worked with the combat-heavy Defiant Theatre of Chicago, and who studied Stage Combat at Columbia a few years back with Fight Master David Woolley.  In the past Morgan and I have staged theatrical combat scenes ranging from knife and sword fights in Shakespeare to the blood drenched effects of horror classics like Frankenstein and Dracula.  Brian has taught me a great deal about creating violence for the stage over the years, and there is always something special about seeing a film like Smuggler with him, which features a gorgeous attention to movement that really appealed to our particular love of great fight choreography.

Vertebrae and Viscera - Smuggler
The number one lesson I learned from working with Brian about staging combat is this:  The fight is never about the fight.  In Smuggler, Ishii manages to create something that is at stake in the character relationships that transcends the battles between them simply being about violence for violence's sake, often with very little, and through a few terribly concise performances, particularly Masatoshi Nagase who plays the driver and supervisor of the smuggling operation, and the central assassin of the film, Vertebrae (Masanobu Ando).  In the scene where we first meet the deadly force of Vertebrae, Ishii uses slow motion to introduce the effortless, supernatural quality of Vertebrae's abilities, as he dances through the room of nearly motionless thugs taking them out one by one with his weapon of choice: an over-sized iron set of nunchaku.  Ouch.

Masanobu Ando as Vertebrae in Smuggler
Much of the fight choreography is contained in small spaces in Smuggler, which shows a particularly skilled attention to detail and articulation on the part of Ishii.  He lovingly cradles in full frame the near death of Vertebrae at the hands of his partner assassin Viscera, as he slows down the blood vomit ballet of Ando's performance, capturing the lightly hued saliva spewing forth from his mouth and the graceful undulating of his arms and legs...even Ando's hair seems to be in sync with the dance.

Although I can't speak from a place of expertise about manga adaptations, Smuggler seems to be a major achievement in translating that illustrative style to film.  The film is adapted from Shohei Monabe's manga series of the same name, and Ishii does a detailed job of getting his actors to not hold back in recreating the extreme visual style of the genre, particularly in the contorted facial expressions gets from them.  At times, this crosses over into some questionable cultural stereotype territory, but it is clear that Ishii is aware of this.  In a scene where the central character, failed actor Ryosuke (Satoshi Tsumabuki), is tortured by a villainous mob boss, the scene sadly echoes off the last decade of American torture porn, adopted from popular Japanese cinema trends.  I would say this scene is part of the film's failure, until a moment where the torturer exits whistling the American Army Air Corps anthem and then returns wearing a military get-up and a diaper.  Seemingly revived by his new outfit, he continues to drive hot metal spikes between the toes of Ryosuke.  Extreme, yes, but another moment where the violence became not about the violence itself, but, in this case, about a larger cultural context.  Smuggler is an unexpectedly thoughtful and well directed film that goes all out in its attempt to recreate the manic energy of manga on film.  Even the decapitated heads are mugging gleefully in this one.

Up Next:  Alrick Brown sheds new light on the Rwandan genocide with Kinyarwanda. 

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