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  • Benjamin May

Blood And Bones (2004) Review

In 1923, a teenager by the name of Kim Shun-Pei moved to Osaka, Japan from Cheju Island, South Korea. There, he grew into a cruel, selfish man of violence who intimidated and exploited all he came across. Founding a fishcake factory- and later a loan sharking operation- he amassed a fortune, creating for himself a fiendish reputation in his community to boot. Married multiple times and father to a brood he cared not for, Shun-Pei was a menace who made life hell for those around him- as his son Masao tells us in Yoichi Sai's 'Blood and Bones.'

A tense, grandly photographed drama written by Yan Sogiru- and based on his own semi-autobiographical novel of the same name- 'Blood and Bones' is a hard-hitting (if somewhat repetitive) exploration of a family unit beset by violence, that also makes interesting commentary on the experience of Korean immigrants in post-war Japan, depicting the harsh realities of discrimination, poverty and social isolation they faced. As the film shows, they work in low-paying, highly dangerous jobs, live in segregated, impoverished housing and face harassment from the police, soldiers and even civilians on a day-to-day basis. They struggle to maintain their cultural and ethnic identity- while also having to contend with the volatile machinations of Shun-Pei.

Featuring many uncomfortable scenes of brutality, rape and even murder, 'Blood and Bones' portrays Shun-Pei as a psychopathic figure who manipulates and bullies any and all he can, though doesn't offer us any reasoning or motivations behind his cruelty. Could he be a product of his environment, or was he born a monster? Is he a symbol of Japan's colonial past, or a completely unique individual? Neither Sogiru nor Sai attempt to answer these questions, leaving the film without a clear perspective on his actions. Furthermore, the narrative structure is somewhat disjointed and episodic, jumping from one scene of violence to another without much connection or development. Additionally, there is little character development of anyone, such as Masao or his mother, nor much reason to care for them beyond our distaste for the callous Shun-Pei.

However, this is not to say that 'Blood and Bones' is by any means a bad film, for the tale is consistently engaging, despite its faults, and contains many scenes of genuine power and pathos, as well as some terrifically realized moments of action. A sequence involving a funeral is a real stand out, as well as a terrifying exchange between Shun-Pei and Masao, as the two men brawl through a wall and out into the street; their hatred for one another having reached fever pitch.

'Blood and Bones' also boasts fine cinematography throughout from Takeshi Hamada, as well as superb production design from Emiko Tsuyuki. Spanning nearly five decades, the locations and sets look consistently period accurate, reflecting the changing times in subtle, clever ways- a testament to Tsuyuki's work. Hamada, meanwhile, creates contrast and mood with his camera work, employing high angles and long shots to show Shun-Pei's dominance and power over his workers and family, while using low angles and close-ups to show their submissive fear. Additionally, he makes expert use of shaky camera movements to bolster the intensity and violence of some scenes, such as during the aforementioned street fight between Shun-Pei and Masao.

Another strength of 'Blood and Bones' is the central performance from Takeshi Kitano, which is powerful and menacing. He plays Shun-Pei as an exceedingly complex, ruthless character who is driven by greed, pride and- above all else- anger. His Shun-Pei is a man who has no remorse or empathy for anyone- even himself. However, he is also capable of moments of humour, charm and generosity, which makes him even more unpredictable and frightening. Kitano's performance is perhaps the highlight of the film; and rightfully earned him several awards and nominations. His supporting cast all do similarly fine work- Tomoko Tabata, Yutaka Matsushige and Susumu Terajima in particular- but 'Blood and Bones' belongs to Kitano.

An unremitting film that is quite hard to watch in places, Yoichi Sai's 'Blood and Bones' tells a familiar story- the life of a man of violence- but tells it well, showing at the same time how the Korean experience in postwar Japan was a difficult and harsh one. Tense and full of brutality, what the film lacks in narrative cohesion and structure it makes up for with its striking visuals and power-house performances- namely Takeshi Kitano's. 'Blood and Bones' may not be for everyone, but some will surely find it a compelling portrait of a psychopathic character they'd be hard pressed to forget.


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