TIFF10 REVIEW: Bunraku [2010]

“Love is temporary; Hope is eternal”

Bunraku may be the term used to describe a form of traditional Japanese puppet theater, but that is no longer what I am going think when the word comes up in casual conversation—because it happens so frequently. Instead, I will recall memories of writer/director Guy Moshe’s unique vision of a future where the law is enforced by battles of skill and hand-to-hand or samurai combat, guns now outlawed from use. His Bunraku is an unforgettable film of high style and high-concept that was three years in the making, finally getting it’s World Premiere as part of the Toronto International Film Festival’s Midnight Madness series. The atmosphere was crazed, the principle cast was in attendance, and a palpable electricity flowed through the Ryerson Theatre as everyone waited in anticipation for a film like they’re never seen before. With vibrant colors assaulting our eyes and fight choreography more akin to dance than anything else, the story portrayed two strangers seeking solace in vengeance on the most powerful warlord in the state, Nicola. It all starts with a prologue told by puppets, origami, and animation, leading into an action packed romp filled with action, blood, and laughter.

Our first introduction into this familiar yet unknown universe is with villains engaged in a power play. Able to bring your best ten or twenty warriors (I forget the exact number), any gang can take a shot at usurping power from Nicola (Ron Perlman in dreads with feral facial hair, all fake he says during a post-screening Q&A). Call it hubris or complete confidence, the warlord sends only his best fighter in a series of ranked assassins to uphold his rule. Killer #2 (Kevin McKidd, who gravitated to the role after meeting with Moshe, loving the idea of being a villain and adopting a Yorkshire accent because he wanted the character to be a resident of “‘Coronation Street’ that could dance like Fred Astaire”) fights while red-clad henchmen are dispatched to instill fear to masses. Never partaking in his fights, Nicola stays hidden in the background, making it difficult to approach. So, the visitors recently blown into town looking for a face-to-face—Josh Hartnett’s Drifter and Gackt’s Yoshi—need to make their presence known to infiltrate his force. Enlisting the help of a limping Bartender (Woody Harrelson), this trio of mysterious men waits for the perfect moment to strike.

And frankly, but by no means a detriment to the work, that’s about as deep as the plot goes. Yoshi and the Drifter have their reasons for challenging Nicola, either for revenge or to honor the death wish of a loved one. What they don’t want, however, is for the other to get in their way of the spoils, at first battling each other to prove their might and the other’s weakness. But after an extended sequence in the rain atop Harrelson’s bar—while he watches with a big smile—the two accept the other as an equal in power and determination. Still tentative about an alliance, they agree to no longer destroy each other, especially since Yoshi’s samurai moves and the Drifter’s fists are virtually unbeatable. It then falls to the Bartender to somehow get them to team up, knowing from experience how tragic going against Nicola alone can be; his own backstory soon revealed to explain the limp and a lost love. And just as Moshe packs in laughs whenever possible, these three have their own comical ticks to play on—Hartnett abstaining from smoking while the smell of nicotine appears to give strength, Gackt practicing a form of pacifism in that not fighting is the strongest fight, and Harrelson’s hobby of pop-up books strangely reminiscent of Spider-Man.

The true star, however, is the unforgettable aesthetic. None of the cast had seen the final product yet and each was amazed by what they saw, their enthusiasm mirrored in the audience watching along with them. None necessarily signed on to make the movie because of the script; they all wanted the opportunity to be a part of Moshe’s vision. Hartnett was involved from the start—and let’s face it, the guy plays earnest, jaded enigmas so much better than realistic romantic leads—while the others simply needed a meeting with the creative force. McKidd spoke about how watching a 20-minute pre-visualization promo made him fall in love with the project; Harrelson’s agent said don’t worry about reading the script first, just meet the director; Perlman coming in late wanted the chance to work with the talent involved; and after an jokingly estimated 10-hour meeting, Gackt had to say yes. Each actor believed in their leader and had full confidence the look he promised would be translated to the screen. And with the set pieces used, one would be hard-pressed to say he cut any corners.

Every single aspect of Bunraku has the necessary tongue-in-cheek flair for the dramatic, going as big as possible without fail. I loved the transitions flowing from scene to scene, the forebodingly deep-voiced narration adding a perfect mood, and the kinetic fight sequences, a mix between quick cuts and extended takes, keeping us entertained and at the edge of our seat. There are comic book style subtitle treatments and old 80s-type “Batman” sound effects and extreme collisions between fist and flesh. Each battle has its own memorable touchstone whether it be a trampoline sparring sessions between the Drifter and one of Nicola’s Killers while the former is unable to hide his fear of heights or a Donkey Kong video game, side-scrolling long-take of Hartnett breaking into a prison compound, surprisingly shot in only a couple takes due to the professionalism of the cast involved. With a full year of preparation, storyboarding, and collecting of aesthetically relevant imagery, as well as the foresight to build sets with the ability for 360° camerawork, Moshe spared no expense on both his budget and his seemingly bottomless wealth of imagination.

Bunraku 7/10 | ★ ★ ★

courtesy of the Toronto International Film Festival

3 Thoughts to “TIFF10 REVIEW: Bunraku [2010]”

  1. Emi

    Awesome! I’ve been waiting for this movie since 2008, and it’s really exciting to read a positive movie review. I look forward to seeing Bunraku when it finally becomes available.

  2. KAM

    Great review!

    Do you know when the film will release in theaters?

    1. not yet … i don’t think it has a distribution deal yet and don’t think anyone bought it at TIFF. playing Fantastic Fest in Austin next, so maybe a buyer will show and they’ll get rolling on release. thanks for reading.

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