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Wednesday, Oct. 27, 2004

Portrait of the patriarch as a monster

Chi to Hone

Rating: * * * * * (out of 5)
Director: Yoichi Sai
Running time: 144 minutes
Language: Japanese
Opens Nov. 6
[See Japan Times movie listings]

Some of the best films are made about the worst, most psychotically violent characters.

News photo
Takeshi Kitano and Kyoka Suzuki in "Chi to Hone"

Who would want to spend two hours alone and unarmed in a room with Travis Bickle, Tony Montana or Hannibal Lector? Yet the movies "Taxi Driver," "Scarface" and "Silence of the Lambs" -- in which they respectively star -- are masterpieces of their genres. A paradox? Not if you accept the cathartic function of art to imaginatively confront and vanquish the monsters that lurk without and within. And these particular monsters have an operatic grandeur that makes them fascinating in their own right, as they sing their arias of madness and evil.

Among the most memorable of Japanese movie monsters is Iwao Enokizu, a serial killer played back in 1979 by Ken Ogata in Shohei Imamura's "Fukushu Suru wa Ware ni Ari (Vengeance Is Mine)." Enokizu, though, has little in the way of grandeur, operatic or otherwise. Instead, he seethes with a murderous hatred for humanity -- himself and his weak-willed, if devoutly Christian, father included.

The Japanese, Western observers often say, have no dualistic sense of good and evil. Imamura may not be a dualist, but he created one of the most coldly evil characters in the history of film.

However, in "Chi to Hone (Blood and Bones)," the new drama by Yoichi Sai that is certain to sweep Japanese film awards for the year, Ogata's portrayal of Enokizu has met its match in one Shunpei Kim.

Played by Takeshi Kitano, in the finest performance of a long career, Shunpei comes to Osaka in 1920 from the island of Cheju in present-day South Korea and by dint of hard work and sheer determination rises out of poverty. Then, in the chaotic early days after World War II, he becomes a successful businessman, family patriarch and a leader in the Korean community.

But this seeming role model brutally rapes his estranged wife (Kyoka Suzuki) in the film's opening scene -- and this is only the first of many outrages and crimes against family, subordinates, lovers and strangers. The usual defenses -- that he has been twisted by social forces beyond his control, that he is only replying in kind to prejudice and hardship -- don't wash. Shunpei is not just another poor immigrant struggling to make his way, but a malevolent embodiment of the will to power, who regards human feelings as weaknesses to be ruthlessly crushed. His every whim must be satisfied, his every word obeyed. He is the father, boss and husband as an absolute master, who knows nothing of limits or mercy.

Based on a novel of the same title by Osaka native Sogiru Yan, who also wrote the book for Sai's award-winning "Tsuki wa Dotchi ni Deteiru (All Under the Moon)" (1993), "Chi to Hone" follows Shunpei's life for nearly six decades -- from his early days in Osaka making kamaboko (fish-paste rolls) in a small workshop and wooing, if that is the correct word, his future wife, who is running a bar and raising a daughter, Harumi.

She bears him a son, Masao (Hirofumi Arai), and daughter, Hanako (Chieko Tabata), but Shunpei can take no pleasure in his family. Drunk, he beats his wife and children and destroys the furniture. Then Harumi (Mihoko Suino) marries Shunpei's most loyal (and thus long-suffering) man, Nobuyoshi (Shigemori Matsu), and Shunpei's kamaboko business begins to grow. Happy now? Not a chance. If anything, prosperity makes him even more of a tyrant.

Then a gangsterish son (Joe Odagiri) from a brief erotic encounter on Cheju shows up out of the blue -- and demands payback. He gets it -- but not in the form he was expecting. Not long after, Shunpei installs his young lover, Kiyoko (Yuko Nakamura), in a nearby house -- and carries on with her at all hours while his wife writhes with embarrassment and rage. Meanwhile, he invests his earnings in a loan-sharking business, while sparing only crumbs for his family.

The list of these and other offenses against common decency -- and common sense -- grows long over the years, as he alienates everyone around him save Kiyoko, who has become a human vegetable under his ministrations -- and is the only thing he cares for. Then he ages, weakens and the day of retribution finally comes.

As a director, Sai has often indulged a sense of humor that ranges from the dryly ironic to the slapsticky grotesque, but in "Chi to Hone" he wipes off the smile entirely. Instead, he views his hero and his acts with an objectivity both unrelenting and absolute. There is nothing chilling in this gaze -- Sai is too much the humanist to take Imamura's bugs-under-the-microscope view of his characters -- but there is nothing sentimental either.

Also, as an ethnic Korean who has lived in Japan all his 55 years, Sai knows his people and their milieu thoroughly -- and spares the audience nothing. Instead of the usual pretense in Japanese films that even the hardest case will be forgiven because he is Father (or Japanese, or human), Sai tells the plain truth: Actions have consequences -- and human beings create their own solitary hells.

In Shunpei, Kitano has found the role he was born for -- or perhaps raised for. As he has described in his autobiographical writings, his own father was a violent drunk -- though Kitano titled one of his films, "Kikujiro no Natsu," in his memory. He perfectly expresses not only Shunpei's violence, but his clenched inner core. He can love, but only what he has destroyed. He has passion, but only for his own needs and desires.

If that is not the definition of a monster -- what is?

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