Wow! What is it with comedians turned “serious actors”? We’ve seen the likes of Robin Williams, Jim Carrey and Jamie Foxx pursue critical acclaim and of course Oscar nods drastically playing against type to show that they’re more than just clowning around. They’ll put all they have into playing doctors and soldiers and… Ray Charles all in the interest of being taken seriously. Sometimes they’ll even go so far as playing the villain, but no one can even touch Japanese comedian and Renaissance man, Takeshi Kitano in the scowling, psychotic villain/ anti-hero department. It’s become his stock and trade, but in Yoichi Sai’s 2004 “Blood and Bones” he takes his performance to monstrous new heights as the abusive patriarch of a Korean immigrant family.
From the moment a young Kim Shun-pei gets off the boat in 1923 he begins clawing and pummeling a life for himself in the Korean ghetto of Osaka. He gets to business raping his young wife, trying to drown his son, drinking oceans of sake all the while building a successful fish cake factory and loan sharking business. Every time he appears on screen you hold your breath wondering what horrors he’s going to unleash. His wife, brother and his two children, daughter Hanako and son Masao are about as helpless as people facing a hurricane when Kim comes home.
At this point you may be asking why you would want to sit for over two hours to watch such brutality, but for all the humanity that Kim lacks his family and neighbours make up for in spades; and it’s often while Kim is off on a drunk or fathering illegitimate children that the story of “Blood and Bones” comes together. We watch Kim’s brother harbour a deep love for Kim’s long suffering wife, we see young Masao fall under the spell of Kim’s bastard son, a low-life yakuza played perfectly by Jô Odagiri, Hanako falls into a loveless and abusive marriage in order to escape her father’s rage while her half brother falls under the spell of the Japanese communist party. All of these stories go on in a back street that doesn’t seem to change from decade to decade, as if the rest of Japanese society would rather not acknowledge or forget these foreigners in their midst. And at the center of it all is Kim, holding the entire neighbourhood hostage, pulling everything towards him like a black hole.
I loved Yoichi Sai’s “Doing Time” for its finely drawn depiction of life in a Japanese prison and once again he brings his keen eye for human behaviour and his own experience growing up as a Korean in Japan to this brutal story of immigrant life. Even though I found myself squirming through some of Kitano’s scenes I couldn’t help being drawn in knowing that his character was based on a real Kim Shin-pei whose son Sogiru Yang brought to the pages of his novel on which “Blood and Bones" is based. Years pass on screen and I was captured by the story of Kim and his family, especially when he selfishly attempts to start a second family with a war widow in a house across the street and then, for a time, selflessly cares for her after she is stricken with a brain tumor. After all the snarling and pounding the scene where he tenderly bathes his mute lover took my breath away.
Sai deservedly won best director and best screenplay at the 2005 Japanese Academy Awards for this powerful and engaging film. I urge all of you to look past Kitano’s public persona and his horrific performance and see “Blood and Bones” through to its end. You’ll find a classic family saga that lingers in your mind for days after watching it.