Wednesday, February 12, 2014

Ichi The Killer

Directed by Takashi Miike Written by Hideo Yamamoto (comic), Sakichi Satô(screenplay). Starring Tadanobu Asano (Kakihara), Nao Ômori (Ichi), Shin'ya Tsukamoto (Jijii).

Bottom line: Ultra-violent but it's gimmicky because it doesn't offer anything insightful other than a depressing outlook on life.

Ichi the Killer (2001) is a film about a masochistic yakuza named Kakihara (Asano) as he looks for his boss who disappeared. He comes across Ichi (Ômori), a psychopath who, in the words of IMDB's description, “may be able to inflict levels of pain that Kakihara has only dreamed of.” If you Google for the poster for this movie, it is a little misleading (though I suspect it's intentional). The man with the Joker-like scars on the poster is Kakihara, not Ichi.

I should note that although I am writing this review today, I have seen this movie twice. I saw it once around when it came out, before I started thinking critically about movies. I didn't particularly like it then and, after watching it again last week, my feelings haven't changed. As a quick side note, I don't know what got into me that day. I woke up and watched Steven Seagal's ludicrous On Deadly Ground only to follow it up with Ichi the Killer. That's like waking up early to have a Taco Bell breakfast (they do that now) and have White Castle burgers for dinner - not good life choices.

Ichi the Killer is a movie that always seems to find a spot on lists of “most disturbing movies.” Its usual compatriots include August Underground (2001), Salo, or 120 Days of Sodom (1975), Irreversible (2002) and (if the list maker knows what's up) Serbian Film (2010). Naturally, when someone says, “This is a disturbing movie. Don't see it.” I hear, “Check it out!”

“What's so disturbing,” I wonder. Violence? Sister, I've played too many video games and watched too many movies to be nauseated by violence. I once read a review by someone like Roger Ebert, though I seem to have trouble finding it now, who called this the “worst movie ever made.” In that review, the critic also said that “all the characters are pure evil.” Pure evil. What does that even mean?

After watching twice, I must say that yes indeed this movie is a violent one: blood sprays from slit throats, boiling oil is poured on people, and people are cut in half. Ichi the Killer based on a graphic novel and that stylized feel carries over. For this reason, I am a little confused as to what is supposed to be disturbing. I feel like watching the guy gets split in half is supposed to be extreme but the graphics are so low quality that it takes me out of the moment. Now, watching a man beat up a prostitute then rape her made me uncomfortable; it had just enough practical special effects (make up instead of computer graphics, that is) to make it realistic.

This movie has it's moments. I like the music and the costumes. There are some shots that drag on for a while but, for the most part, the cinematography is really energetic. I didn't really like any of the characters. I didn't see really much depth or growth. They are just coldly violent. The one character, for example, sighed with disappointment upon seeing his brother killed because “I looked forward to killing him one day.” Kakihara is the one exception. I really liked his style and, throughout the course of the movie, you come to understand his motivations.

After watching Ichi the Killer, I was sad not disgusted. This movie didn't particularly prompt for introspection it just made me reflect on the miserable lives of the characters in the movie. All I saw was death, pain, and heartache. I don't recommend Ichi the Killer. Not because it's disturbing but because it simply isn't worth your time or emotional investment.

If you want to see something disturbing but worth it watch Michael Haneke's 1997 film Funny Games. He once said that something is wrong with you if you sit through the entire thing. It's a commentary about violence in society and pop-culture today.

In the near future, I will write a post about Ichi the Killer and the positioning of the audience. That is, how are we supposed to react to all this violence? I will add a link to this post once it's finished.
Thanks for reading!

Monday, February 10, 2014

Wild Strawberries and the Philosophical Issues With Self-Examination

Wild Strawberries is Isac Borg's recollection of a particular day. The reality that is presented, however, is as concrete as the dreams he experiences. Consider the sequence when Isak and his daughter in law, Marianna, set out on the highway. Marianna asks Isak if he remembers his response to her request to stay with him. He says, “I said I would be delighted.” She smirks with a mixture of bitterness and astonishment. She says,“ Perhaps you've forgotten but you said,'...I have no respect for mental suffering...if you need therapy, you'd better see a shrink. Or why not see a minister? It's in fashion now.' ” Whether or not he actually forgot what he said is not important. What is important is his inclination to color his memory with a rose tint, particularly if we consider Bergman's relationship to the Isak Borg. Bergman says, “I had created a character who, on the outside, looked like my father, but was me, through and through.”1 In this way, Isak's interactions with his dreams may serve as a metaphor to describe how Bergman interacts with his films. In his film, Wild Strawberries, Bergman uses dreams to reflect on his identify and family's issues while exploring the philosophical implications of self-reflection

Bergman creates cinematic fantasies to address his own psychology issues, chiefly, his relationship with his father. He also addresses the possibility that Isak's dreams are simply wishful thoughts rather than actual examinations, and by doing so, illustrates how his films (particularly Wild Strawberries) are themselves self-examinations.

As Paisley Livingston discusses, Eino Kaila's treatise on philosophical psychology plays a major role in the Bergman's films (Livingston, 161)2. Kaila's existential perspective is present throughout the film but most importantly in the use of dreams. Livingston notes that, “Kaila at times makes sweeping pronouncements about the pervasiveness and faulty self-awareness...” (Livingston,167). By this, Isak Borg's dreams may come under question and, therefore, require examination.

The film is split between three dreams. Although, it is more two dreams and a “vision of past events” though it is easier to just label them dream 1, dream 2, and dream 3. There is a distinct progression in thought between these dreams. Dream 1 is a vision. Dream 2 is a romanticized remembrance of the past. Dream 3 is a free-association directly influenced by Borg's doubts and sources of stress.

Isak's first dream becomes something of a vision by hinting at future events. The watch with no hands, as it is revealed once belonged to his father, for example. Similarly, the noise reminiscent of a child whimpering as the coffin falls out of the carriage hints at the turmoil in his son's marriage. His daughter-in-law is pregnant and his son doesn't want a child. The cinematography is very basic. The tracking shot with follows Borg up and down the street gives the scene an artificial feel which follows because the situation is a creation of Borg's subconscious. It is interesting to note that real blood was used in the bloated man though it appears lighter and more watery than blood. Normally, something like chocolate is used as a substitute which contrasts in the picture and has a blood-like texture. The mixture of reality and fantasy is the first indication of the complexity of Borg's (and Bergman's) exploration.

The cinematography in the second dream plays heavily with light/dark contrasts. The room where the family eats is very white, from the clothing to the table settings to the porridge they eat. Isak, wearing a dark jacket, watches this scene from the shadow filled adjoining room. When Sara runs away from the family and confesses that she cares for Isak's brother, she kneels down by the stairs in that room. The dark wooden stairs bar her like a prison cell. She is the only source of light. She confesses by saying that she is wretched and undeserving of Isak, who, upon hearing this, smirks slightly with pride. This dream is wish fulfillment. Isak wasn't present for these events so even though he prefaced the dream as a memory, it is fantasy based on a supposed reality. Although he witnesses his first love leaving him, he is able to maintain a level of moral superiority. Additionally, the detail that he was fishing with his father, presents their otherwise abusive relationship in a positive fashion.

The final dream is a free-association of Isak's doubts. The lighting is harsh and the mis-en-scene is relatively bare though it is froth with symbolic significance. The closing shot of the film is of Isak falling peacefully asleep. He smiles and drifts off. His journey has given him a much needed new perspective on which we assume he will act.

Given that Bergman alludes to the philosopher throughout the film, Borg's journey must be considered with respect to Kaila. Borg's narration might suggest that he has fallen into a state of false self-awareness. As Mariana pointed out in the beginning, that Borg listens to no one but himself and, indeed, this journey is Borg talking to himself. In his words, his recent dreams have been “as if I must tell myself something I won't listen to when I'm awake.” With this line, either he is finally able to self-reflect or it might illustrate that Borg has not changed. After all, Marianna and his family have already said what he is trying to tell himself. He is only able to hear them, indirectly, through himself.

Kaila continues to explain the possibility of self-awareness by saying, “Objective, rational thought is possible, but such moments of lucidity only emerge in the relatively few cases...” (Livingston, 167-168). An example of one of those few cases would be “...falling so short of social norms and ideals that they are forced to engage in painful reflection” (Livingston, 168). With this in mind, we can more clearly document Borg's existential journey. The initial dream is merely playing off his fears of the inevitability of death. His second dream, triggered by his learning of his son's hatred, is an escapist fantasy which shields him from the pain of self-reflection. Ultimately, his realization of his shortcomings as a father and as a person result in actual self-reflection in the form of the final dream where he looks at himself in a mirror and smiles (be it a smile contorted in pain).

As Amir Cohen-Shalev notes, Bergman's family and religious themes develop over the course of his career (86). Through the final dream sequence in Wild Strawberries, it becomes clear that Bergman acknowledges the difficulty of self-reflection. It is unclear, however, whether or not Bergman is able to replicate the self-awareness of Isak Borg.

1 "Ingmar Bergman Foundation." Ingmar Bergman. N.p., n.d. Web. 06 Feb. 2014.

2 Livingston, Paisley. Cinema, Philosophy, Bergman: On Film as Philosophy. Oxford: Oxford UP, 2009. Print.