Busan International Film festival: Killing

Masterfuly directed by Tsukamoto, Killing manages to make a Shakespearean tragedy in Japan that lasts under 2 hours. It’s an austere, harshly beautiful film about what it takes to survive in difficult surroundings. After a mesmerizing opening where we watch gleaming samurai sword forged out of glowing embers, we meet the characters whose lives will be overwhelmed by the events of the story.

The setting is rural Japan during the Edo period. Mokunoshin Tsuzuki is a samurai with no master, but he maintains his swordsmanship by sparring with Ichisuke, a farmer’s son. Just from the way the farmer’s sister Yu’s looks disapprovingly at Tsuzuki, we can sense the danger that will soon appear, even though the film begins during a time of peace.

An older samurai master arrives in the village, impressing the younger men with his skill at fighting. He is laidback and restful, seeming to fear nothing. He soon recruits the young men, much to Yu’s dismay, who alone can see the violence and death that will inevitably descend on their quiet village.

The ronin’s arrival is followed by a rampaging gang of outlaws. While the samurai follow a code – and look clean and handsome – the robbers are filthy, dressed in rags and lacking any element of civility.

The violence comes fast but there are moments of beauty, as when the young men watch fascinated as a ladybird climbs up a tree, “leading to heaven,” as Tsuzuki puts it.

After the outlaws attack the farm, Ichisuke challenges them, and is beaten badly. But this leads to even worse violence, which is filmed in rapid cutting, blood-spraying action. After Ichisuke is murdered, the younger samurai vows to avenge his death, even as the older samurai advises against it. The sister howls in despair to match the pounding soundtrack, and the killing of the title begins. I said that the story was Shakespearean, which is not overstating things. But the film’s revenge element made me remember the Clint Eastwood classic “Unforgiven.”

Killing is showing as part of the Gala presentation.

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