FANTASIA Report: SUKIYAKI WESTERN DJANGO Review

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FANTASIA Report:  SUKIYAKI WESTERN DJANGO Review

Thank God for English subtitles. Yes, the latest from Japanese cult icon Takashi Miike, his spin on the spaghetti western, is technically already in English but thanks to the vast majority of his performers speaking no English at all and having to deliver their lines phonetically trying to watch this film without subtitles would have been an exercise in pain. With them, however, the film is a loopy explosion of energy, the most overtly crowd pleasing effort from the prolific cinematic freak show since Zebraman. Bright, brash, violent, and intentionally camp Sukiyaki Western Django is that rarest of things: an intentional cult film that succeeds on all fronts.

Miike begins by tearing a page out of another brilliant Asian western - Wisit Sasanatieng's Tears of the Black Tiger - giving us a prologue placed on a hyper-stylized sound stage. The painted backdrops are obvious, and intentionally so, designed to play up the extremities of what is to follow. It's as though Miike's letting us know that he's in on the joke. Yes, it's all very fake and very silly, he's saying, but by god we're going to have a good time with it. In the middle of this painted setting, with the cardboard cut out sun and a completely two dimensional mountain in the background, is a cowboy in full western garb cooking a pot of sukiyaki over an open fire. The cowboy is none other than Quentin Tarantino, an outspoken fan of Miike's work here returning the favor Miike paid him by appearing in Eli Roth's Hostel, and his part is far from the self indulgent wank many feared when he appeared on set. Instead it falls to Tarantino to establish the basic story, a spin on England's War of the Roses, and the tone of the piece through a ridiculous piece of ultra-bloody violence and also by gradually altering his accent away from his natural tones and into the stilted rhythms that come from delivering lines you don't actually understand but have had to learn by sounding them out. Yes, just in cased you missed the point from the sets and the initial blood spray spattering all over the painted back drop Miike is letting you know once again: he knows the English language thing is supremely silly, he's in on the joke, now stop whining about it and have some fun.

And fun you will have.

Here's the story. Two clans - the Red and the White - have been at war for centuries. Their numbers are seriously depleted, the clans reduced to little more than wandering gangs, but the battle rages on. Drawn by rumors of an enormous hidden treasure both gangs have set up shop in a remote western town to search while sniping at each other from a distance, a potentially explosive situation that the vast majority of townsfolk have wisely fled. Into the midst of this powder keg rides a nameless stranger, a taciturn quickdraw artist who prefers to shoot first and ask questions later. So skilled that his addition to one side or the other would permanently tip the scales and end the long running clan feud, our wanderer offers his services to whichever clan is prepared to offer up the largest share of the treasure, once found.

Beyond this there isn't much point in talking about story. It's not that there isn't more there, it's that there are so many extreme characters and set pieces that going any farther would quickly devolve into a list of favorite moments. There's the unexpected Shakespeare fixation, the woman caught between clans, a crossbow, dynamite, a Gatlin gun, and rampant, stylish bloodshed. As is the case with virtually everything Miike has ever done there are lulls from time to time, moments where the story threatens to bog down, but he more than redeems those moments with his manic energy, inventive action set pieces, sudden bursts of gore and some hysterically funny sight gags. Miike has a very gifted cast here - one of the leads is currently shooting an English language feature with the director of City of God - all of whom clearly get the joke and relish the chance to be involved.

Sukiyaki Western Django captures Miike in his glossy, crowd pleasing, supposedly mainstream mode - this is far more the Miike of Zebraman and The Great Yokai War than the Miike of Ichi the Killer - and it is one of the very best examples of the type, a near perfect fusion of the raw energy that made so many cultists fans in the first place and the technical polish that has become increasingly evident in his more recent work. It is stylish, surprising, occasionally shocking but mostly just very, very fun.

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More about Sukiyaki Western Django

SwarezSeptember 13, 2007 6:29 AM

Agreed. It was fun but could use a few snips here and there. It dragged somewhat near the end and mostly because of how the actors preformed their lines in a language they didn't speak.

His message to the crowd was priceless though.

CaterpillarSeptember 13, 2007 1:19 PM

Phonetic English you say? That was already unbearable in IMPRINT. I can't belive I'm saying this but I really think I may have to wait for a dubbed version of this.

claytonianSeptember 13, 2007 7:02 PM

I happen to have interviewed a star and translator for this movie. He talks a little bit about it here: http://surrealu.blogspot.com/2007/05/new-interview-christian-storms.html

sarkoffagusSeptember 13, 2007 7:29 PM

I heart Takashi Miike. I love nearly everything he does, and I can't wait to see this movie!

Kurt HalfyardSeptember 14, 2007 12:06 AM

yep. I hope things are snipped away a bit, but I had no issues with the phonetic english, stopped reading the subs about 10 minutes in. That was surprising.

This movie is a heck of a lot more fun in a willing crowd, and i suspect it may be a bit of a slog at times if you watched it solo. Just a though.

Still, as a fun riff on things not unlike the effect an Ishii film can have on a crowd Django worked in spades. There are even a half a dozen spectacular images that work on a serious level, despite the films clear intent to goof around.

I'd love to see Miike take a serious less campy go around the concept. It's a ripe one. Mainly because SDW was a missed opportunity in terms of making some commentary on how one culture appropriates anothers for entertainment purposes. It's there but quite subtle.

swampthingJune 28, 2008 10:23 AM

Loved it. Miike pushes the envelope. It's not enough to have Japanese actors speaking Phonetic English, but he makes them recite Shakespeare as well!

The VisitorJune 28, 2008 10:52 AM

after all the praises heaped on this, i went into it expecting it to at least be fun and entertaining.

it wasn't. AT ALL.

it's one thing to wink at the audience, but it's another to all the time be telling the audience "yeah, we're not being serious here!" the novelty lasted for about five seconds.

M

anyone who can honestly, HONESTLY say they totally enjoyed this needs to have a brain-scan.

san ku kaiJune 28, 2008 5:44 PM

Why would I need a brainscan if I do not what to be cured ... ?

I'm not saying it's like picture perfect all the way, but this movie is just irrestibly fun and glorious ! Another very unique Miike extravanganza.

And do yourself a big favor : don't use english subtitles. It will kill half the fun. I admit that I am still missing a few minor lines here and there (but I'm looking forward to deciphering them through the optional Japanese subs on the dvd), but once you get into it, it's not that difficult to understand. And I think the Katakana English adds highly to the atmosphere and the unique vision of the movie. Here Miike brilliantly turned the weak point of 'Imprint' into a valuable asset.

Andrew CunninghamJune 29, 2008 4:07 AM

Interesting - the version at the Seattle Film Festival was definitely not too long, and definitely did not have any significant English problems, so I wonder if that was the new version.

The VisitorJune 29, 2008 11:52 AM

i don't know what your definition of "creative filmmaker" is. but to me, Tsui Hark is as creative as Miike. but to what end is that creativity? how does it support the storytelling? when Tsui Hark is good, his films got interesting camera angles, emotional weight, energy, etc. when Miike is good, it's not so much interesting camerawork but his narrative is strong. his weakness has always been a tendency to be overly oblique when he's got nowhere left to take the story (both the endings of Dead Or Alive and One Missed Call). for me, the best Miike film ever is The Bird People In China. it's his most sincere and heartfelt storytelling. i was completely astounded by it when i first saw it, because it felt like Miike had stopped to take a breather but in doing so, had given us a bigger, deeper glimpse of his world.

Grady HendrixJuly 1, 2008 10:03 PM

Okay, I don't like getting into online rumbles but I can't let anyone dis Tsui Hark and get away with it. You can't take the men out of their context, so the first thing to say is that Tsui Hark was enormously more influential than Takashi Miike. His movies and his aesthetic shaped 15 years of Chinese film history, and his work as a producer was enormously influential. He's the first Hong Kong director to use an art director (William Chang in ALL THE RIGHT CLUES...FOR THE WRONG SOLUTION), he practically invented the Hong Kong special effects industry with ZU: WARRIORS FROM THE MAGIC MOUNTAIN, he launched the careers of John Woo, Jet Li and Chow Yun-fat, and he established standard practices in the Hong Kong and Chinese film industries that live on to this day.

You say that he made PEKING OPERA BLUES, THE BLADE and not much else? You're welcome to your point of view, but you're ignoring a huge number of his films. SHANGHAI BLUES is enormously inventive and is practically a blueprint for PEKING OPERA BLUES with a great performance at its heart. DANGEROUS ENCOUNTER: FIRST KIND still holds up as first class cinematic anarchy, and the kind of action choreography he began developing with THE BLADE and TIME AND TIDE is completely unique and instantly recognizable. ONCE UPON A TIME IN CHINA, GREEN SNAKE, ZU: WARRIORS FROM THE MAGIC MOUNTAIN and SWORDSMAN 2 are deeply imagined, ground-breaking fantasy and historical films that I don't think are easily dismissed and let's not forget the sheer pleasures of THE CHINESE FEAST, A BETTER TOMORROW 3 and WE'RE GOING TO EAT YOU - three inconsistent movies that contain in places more charm than an army of bunny rabbits.

True, in recent years his career has fallen into the doldrums - in fact, he seems to be wandering in the desert of lameness since around 2000 - but it would be a mistake to dismiss 15 years of ground-breaking innovation out of hand. Both Miike and Hark are terrific directors and that's an objective statement of fact. You can argue with it all you want, and they may not be to your taste, but they're both in the top tier whether you like it or not. I wish to god that the world bent to my personal taste so that Zhang Yimou would be forgotten soon, or we could all agree that John Ford is gruesomely overrated, but no matter how much I wish it was so there are just some things that are fact.

zen99July 1, 2008 10:33 PM

Grady - well spoken. Peking Opera Blues - terrific in terms of kinetic film grammar as well as female lead characters. Swordsman 2- furiously filmic, outrageous gender-bending thematics. Once Upon a Time in China series - culturally important and a huge star-maker. OUTC 2 cannot be topped for wire-fu choreography. Green Snake - funny and sweet and quite touching. Just these films alone insure Hark as a major film making icon.

The VisitorJuly 2, 2008 9:33 AM

in that case, we can say the same about Johnnie To then, that he didn't direct any of those early films like The Longest Nite, and he forced his vision on the director. hmm.

my friend, debating on an issue isn't about trying to force the other person to accept and adopt your views. in th end we might learn something from each other or we might agree to disagree. thats all.

ChevalierAguilaJuly 2, 2008 5:11 PM

"My friend, debating on an issue isn’t about trying to force the other person to accept and adopt your views. in th end we might learn something from each other or we might agree to disagree. thats all."

True to that.

And as much influence a producer can have over a movie, he is stil far from being considered the director, unless he is actually directing the film and the guy with the credit of "director" is just there as pure filler.

El DuderinoJuly 16, 2008 6:58 PM

Grady, you're totally right. At least you know what you're talking about.
Sometimes its not just "a matter of opinion".

Oh, by the way SWD is awful.