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Friday, Dec. 16, 2011
Enduring extreme torture for a fistful of dollars
A director who makes a film that loudly complains about the sad state of current cinema is setting himself up as a critics' punching bag ("You, sir, are part of the problem ..."). Also, if he inserts his list of 100 all-time best films into his climax he is asking for some impolite comments about his taste.
And if, to top it all off, he sets his cinematic screed in a culture with which he is barely familiar, he is all but doomed, is he not?
Veteran Iranian director Amir Naderi accordingly took some critical hits when his film "Cut," which is all of the above and more, premiered at this year's Venice film festival: "Pretentious" got big play in the reviews, as did "unbearable."
But I found this passionate, opinionated film, which is Japanese in its setting, cast and language, hard to dismiss or dislike, for all its improbabilities and pound-away repetitions.
Naderi's simple story, of a fanatical cinéaste (Hidetoshi Nishijima) who pays a heavy price in pain for his dead brother's yakuza debts, gathers force as it goes along. Naderi also persuaded me that he knows his world cinema: I not only nodded with approval at most of his list, which flashes on screen during the climax, but noted films for future viewing.
"Cut," however, reminded me of a film not in Naderi's pantheon: "Dogville," Lars von Trier's 2003 parable on the unlimited human and specifically American capacity for evil. Both directors finessed the culture gap (the Danish von Trier had never ventured to the U.S.) by setting their story in a stylized space: Trier's was a bare-bones stage representing a Colorado mining town, Naderi's is a sparely decorated bar-cum-gambling-den in Tokyo. Also, both films strive to be more universally metaphorical than locally critical.
The big difference is that, where von Trier placed an ironic distance between himself and his subject, Naderi appears to be totally in earnest. Which some critics took for single-minded stridency, but his film is more self-aware and nuanced than it initially seems.
His hero, Shuji (Nishijima), is a struggling filmmaker who holds screenings of classic films on the roof of his apartment building and takes to the streets to harangue indifferent passersby on the imminent demise of what he calls "real cinema." As fervent about films as certain Middle Eastern revolutionaries are about politics, he wants to destroy the present industry order, in which money men rule, and return Japanese films to what they were at their now long-ago peak: A blend of art and entertainment that told human truths, not pandering lies.
Then Shuji learns that his brother has died, beaten to death by gangsters for nonpayment of a huge debt — and that he is now the designated payee. After hearing the increasingly desperate messages his brother had left on his answering machine when Shuji was out saving the film world, he vows to make good the debt in the two weeks the gangsters give him.
His chosen method of money-earning, however, is as unorthodox as his one-man cinematic revolution. In the toilet where his brother died, inside the aforementioned bar and gang office, he offers to let all comers take a swing at him, collecting a fee for each landed blow. Gangsters line up, yen notes clasped in their eager fists.
This type of "service" actually exists: I used to see one fellow on the night streets of Kabukicho taking punches from drunken salarymen in return for "donations," but he had his "opponents" wear boxing gloves. Shuji, however, is passively beaten with bare knuckles — and it soon becomes clear that no flesh-and-blood man could stand up to such punishment. (Shuji, though, is no superman, as evidenced by his monstrously bruised and swollen face.)
He is not, we see, just a human punching bag, but also a symbol of the do-or-die commitment required to make art happen in a largely hostile world, as well as of the potential of films to change and support lives. Taking blow after painfully realistic blow, Shuji recites the titles of the films he has screened, drawing inspiration and strength from memories they evoke.
At the same time, he is expiating the guilt he feels over his brother's death — a death he might have prevented if he hadn't been so wrapped up in his quixotic campaign. That is, he is a flawed mortal whose deepest pain is spiritual. His self-chosen martyrdom has pathos and even nobility.
As stills from some of Naderi's 100 favorites flash on the screen amid the blows and blood, "Cut" becomes not only a paean to beloved films, but also a rallying cry against the forces of greed and cynicism. The ultra violence, however, threatens to drown out the message.
As Shuji, Nishijima makes us believe in this street-corner preacher's essential humanity, his ability to feel love, shame and regret. Playing the bar staff, former idol star Takako Tokiwa and veteran character actor Takashi Sasano supply a welcome quiet, if worried, contrast to Shuji's noise, while Shun Sugata and Denden do their standard gangster turns with their usual professionalism.
Despite the many shout-outs to Japanese directors in "Cut," from Akira Kurosawa to Takeshi Kitano, Naderi is not simply the latest foreigner trying to make a fake "Japanese movie." Instead he has made a Naderi movie, using Japanese cinema as an inspiration, while referencing the local culture's traditional love of the self-sacrificial hero.
I don't know whether Naderi has ever read "Ashita no Joe (Tomorrow's Joe)," a classic manga whose battered boxer hero nobly refuses to punch his opponents in the face after killing one with his fists, but Shuji could be Joe's younger brother, if one with better taste in films. Assuming he still has enough brain cells left to remember them, that is.