As this blog is rapidly approaching its terminal point, this will likely be the final update about films that I put on my must see list last year (the previous capsule reviews can be found here). Didn’t manage to see very many, but I place the blame squarely on distributors not knowing a good thing when they see it. Hopefully more will find their way to Region 1 DVD release soon.
Sukiyaki Western Django
In the shadow of Mount Fuji, a drifter spins a tale about a hidden cache of gold left behind in a town that was once the battleground between two warring clans. That town just happens to be in Nevada, and the drifter is a sharp shooter played by none other than Quentin Tarrantino, so you know right off the bat that you’ve entered Takashi Miike territory.
With his usual daring, the director up and plunks down the American Old West squarely within Japan’s borders, working within the framework of the Spaghetti Western. Since the genre itself blossomed into glorious excess at the hands of Italian directors re-imagining Andalusia as the American Southwest, and many a Japanese chanbara inspired American knock offs set at High Noon in a dusty street, Miike is not so much completing the loop as giving the wheel another spin.
It’s as over-the-top as its forebears and everything you’ve come to expect from a Miike film (that is, you never know just what to expect). When one of the clan bosses begins instruction on catching a falling katana with your bare hands, you can tell something is up, and simply have to wait to see how Miike will spin it. Shakespeare, otaku references, critiques on the sweetness of sukiyaki (reminding me of another fav, Tampopo) and quick draw goddesses in human form: it’s always better to be disappointed by a director’s daring misfire than settling for reheated seconds, and for me anyway, Western Django didn’t disappoint.
It was fortuitous that recently I was able to enjoy a taste of Balinese wayang kulit as performed by ShadowLight as well as finally getting around to watching Sita Sings the Blues online. You get a brief glimpse of the clashing puppets here, as well as the gender wayang instruments employed during the Yerba Buena Gardens show. In truth, Opera Jawa incorporates a bewildering number of artistic performance and presentation types, from wayang orang dance to contemporary styles, traditional tembang sunda song and sets dressed like a Matthew Barney exhibit. Nina Paley’s animated marvel proved a great primer for the myth of Sita (here referred to by her Indonesian name Sinta), the abducted wife of Rama who is accused by her husband of infidelity with the demon Rahwana (check out blogger Engineer’s Daughter’s impressions here).
Just like in Sita Sings the Blues, the mythological tale looms large over events in a contemporary story. Jealousy begins to stir in Setyo (Martinus Miroto), a potter, when faced with the attention that a local thug named Ludiro (Eko Spruyanto) is paying to his wife, a former dancer named Siti (Artika Sari Devi). The fact that Siti was famed for her portrayal of the role of Sinta gives the ensuing events the air of tragedy replaying itself.
While no doubt the production must have had a lavish budget, it is amazing to see the small improvisations that are made with relatively common materials. During a contentious scene in their bedroom, Setyo resisting the entreaties of Siti wraps his t-shirt around his head as he dances, making implicit in action his attempts to shut out his wife emotionally. After he spies her returning from an encounter with Ludiro, lump of clay resting in his hands, Setyo imagines Siti sitting atop his potting wheel as if he could mold her desires to his wishes. Woven cones for scooping and covering steamed rice are converted into any number of things from scene to scene: the head and tail of a caterpillar-like beast, a mask, the larger versions even becoming tent-like blinds from which Ludiro’s gang members spring out to startle Siti.
It’s shocking actually that the three elements of song, dance and set design work in concert so well considering how dream-like and memorable is the visual element. I was reminded of Gummo director Harmony Korine’s stated intention in the DVD extras of that film to create images he’d never seen before, but wanted to see. Ludiro dancing in a room of silver heads next to a suspended slaughtered carcass, a servant reverently laying flower petals on a sculpture of a television set next to an ancient temple, mannequins with candle heads that bleed wax down their length: in the hands of an individual artist any could be a work unto themselves, but here each is seamlessly interwoven into the whole.