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Friday, March 10, 2006

Wrestling with an identity crisis


Rating: * * * (out of 5)
Director: Song Hae Seong
Running time: 149 minutes
Language: Japanese
Currently showing
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Not every expat in Japan gets the homesick blues -- many are heartily glad to be here and not there. But in the process of adapting, adjusting or totally Japanizing, nearly everyone looks out across the water or up at the cracks in the ceiling and thinks thoughts that seldom occur to the permanently planted locals. Why did I come? What am I missing? When, if ever, am I going back?

News photo
Miki Nakatani (left) and Sul Kyung Gu (right) in "Rikidozan"

The eponymous hero of Song Hae Seong's "Rikidozan" asks these same questions. But he begins the film as a young Korean sumo wrestler (Sul Kyung Gu), being kicked half to death by his Japanese stablemates. In the brutal world of a wartime sumo stable, we see, he has little time for introspection, little inclination for regrets. His village offered him only grinding poverty, his country, only a miserable death on the battlefield. To return with nothing to show would be a humiliation beyond endurance. He is full of a rage to succeed.

So he learns the Japanese language until he can speak it like a native (while refusing to utter a word in his native Korean). He fights against the prejudice and abuse with the determination of a baited bear gnawing on his chain. When a senior wrestler jokingly snips the clothesline on which he has been hanging the stable's laundry, he nearly gouges out his tormentor's eye with a pair of scissors, leaving him a trembling, blubbering wreck.

When Riki finally wins enough bouts for promotion to ozeki -- sumo's second-highest rank -- but is denied it by the elderly xenophobes who run the sport, he tears up the room -- and looks like he would tear up the entire world if he could.

Not long after, he decides to quit sumo and try a new sport with no national barriers: pro wrestling.

In the 1950s, Riki became a beloved icon for Japanese baby boomers and their elders -- a burly pro-wrestler with a trademark karate chop who, in his widely televised bouts with even burlier American wrestlers, restored Japanese pride after the agony of defeat and occupation, while single-handedly making his often-derided sport a national obsession.

A big-budget Japanese-Korean coproduction with big names in both its Japanese and Korean casts, ``Rikidozan'' might be expected to cater to those Boomers with nostalgic, soft-focused entertainment.

Instead, Song ("Failan," "Love Letter," "Calla") makes Riki's struggle with the secret of his Korean identity (which would have been a secret for two seconds in this Internet age) the agonized heart of his film.

Instead of a colorful figure from a more innocent time, Song gives us a Riki who is a constant trial to himself and others because he could never, in a basic human sense, be himself. There are moments of glory and moments of tenderness with his long-suffering wife Aya (Miki Nakatani), but mostly Riki is a clenched, lonely soul who sees life, inside the ring and out, as a never-relenting Darwinian battle. This makes for grim viewing, like watching a cut of "Raging Bull" with only the bloody fights and blazing rows left in, not to mention the scene of Robert De Niro bashing his head against the jailhouse wall.

Song is telling home truths about Riki's world that would probably not have occurred to a Japanese director more interested in the icon than the Korean guy behind the assimilated mask. But in not allowing Riki to truly remove his mask until the end -- and not showing us how he came to wear it in the first place, Song puts us at one remove from the real Riki.

That said, Sul Kyung Gu gives an all-out performance that can only be described as De Niro-ean. He not only rattles off his Japanese dialogue with native assurance (if not quite a native accent), but performs in the ring like a pro, without relying on editing assists to execute the more spectacular throws and falls. The work required for the role must have been enormous -- and informs Sul's interpretation. He is like a circus bear with an open wound, performing tricks for the crowd with the pain written on his face, but never showing his true nature until some fool rattles his cage -- or steps inside.

Among the Japanese cast, Tatsuya Fuji is a stand-out as the rich patron who indulges Riki's whims for shady purposes of his own. With his pencil mustache and world-weary smirk, he looks almost distractingly like Adolph Menjou, that jaded charmer of the silents, who often hid stronger, darker emotions beneath the polished surface.

As Aya, Miki Nakatani is more directly in the path of Riki's bull-like charges at life -- and goes through much of the film with the tight, pale smile of the permanently stressed. Her Aya, however, can't help liking the big lug -- and her quiet shows of affection humanize what would otherwise have been a bleak one-man show.

As one of the Boomers who remember Riki -- I used to practice his karate chop on my unwary friends -- I expected something larger than life from his cinematic doppelganger. The guy, after all, was a great showman, whose act -- felling big foreigners like they were rotten trees -- anyone could immediately understand, even on the grainy TV sets of the day. Song's film gets the dark inner reality of Riki's life -- but the showmanship only in flashes. In "Rikidozan" even the spangles look brown.

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