Running time: 132 min.
Reviewed by Chris MaGee
Shuji (Hidetoshi Nishijima) is a cinephile. When he is not writing his new screenplay or working on one of his own films he is holding special screenings of classic films on the roof of his Tokyo apartment building, a space plastered with photos of his heroes: Kurosawa, Godard, Ford, Welles, Ophüls and more. It's a hard life, especially in Tokyo where the old movie theatres are being shut down to make way for multiplexes screening the latest Hollywood blockbusters. It's a situation that's nearly pushed Shuji to the edge. He gets in trouble with police for putting up posters advertising his screenings and for blasting pedestrians with a megaphone, declaring that "Film is not a whore! Cinema is Art!" He stands at the graves of Akira Kurosawa, Yasujiro Ozu and Kenji Mizoguchi, praying to his masters for guidance. If it weren't for the steady financial support of his brother, Shingo, Shuji's almost monastic existence dedicated to the art of film would be impossible. The only problem is the money that Shingo has been providing to Shuji wasn't really his to give.
You see, Shingo has been working for the yakuza and borrowing money again and again from his bosses. With no way to pay them back Shingo is made an example of and killed and it's left to Shuji to pay of his astronomical debt -- ¥14 million (roughly $180,000). With only three of his own films to his name there is nothing that Shuji can do. Still he is given a harsh ultimatum by yakuza boss Masaki (Shun Sugata): two weeks to find the money or end up killed for life insurance money. At his wits end Shuji heads to Masaki's cavernous clubhouse and bar where he discovers an unusual way to make money. He allows himself to be beaten up for cash, first ¥5,000 a punch, then ¥8,000. Soon he is delivering bloody fistfuls of cash to Masaki and introducing his rooftop screenings covered in vicious bruises.; but will Shuji die trying to pay off his debt?
"Cut" is the latest film from Amir Naderi, the Pied Piper of Iranian cinema. Over 25 years ago Naderi left his native Iran in order to escape the country's repressive regime and to help introduce the world to Iranian cinema. His films have won awards at Venice, Torino and Avignon Film Festivals, but all the while Naderi harboured a passion for another national cinema, that of Japan. Today, besides filmmaking, Naderi teaches Japanese cinema history at such venerable institutions as Columbia University and New York's School of Visual Arts. It would seem inevitable that Naderi would eventually want to pay homage to the cinema of Japan. "Cut" is that attempt, and Naderi has gone all out to achieve his goal. The film was shot in Tokyo during the summer of 2010 with the assistance of a trio of maverick independent producers. The very best acting talent, including the aforementioned Nishijima (Dolls, Vacation), Sugata (Confessions of a Dog), as well as Takashi Sasano and Takako Tokiwa, were brought in front of camera, and Japanese director Shinji Aoyama helped co-write the script. Ultimately, though, Naderi has exceeded his goal and has created both a requiem to the death of pure cinema and a heroic metaphor for the life of the artist.
The basic plot of "Cut" may come across to many North American viewers as a variation on David Fincher's cult hit "Fight Club", but it would be a very superficial and unfortunate comparison. Whereas that film used underground, bare knuckle brawling as a metaphor for personal empowerment, the violence in "Cut" is a magnified representation of a life that those committed to cinema (or the arts in general) already know too well. Poverty, mountains of debt, frequent financial assistance from family members, sub par housing, all of this is privation is traded off so that a cinephile, filmmaker or artist can devote themselves to their passion, their work, their art. Watching Shuji screen films and then proceed to subsist on canned beans and ramen noodles, squirrel away spare change in a mason jar and dodge incessant phone calls from creditors may have been realistic, but it wouldn't have made for good cinema. As part of Naderi's goal of paying tribute to Japanese cinema he mines the rich tradition of yakuza films to heighten the stakes. Instead of being given the choice to find gainful employment outside his chosen filmmaking profession Naderi has Shuji literally fight for his life in order to pay down the debts accrued by his brother. Still the insult of making lattes, cleaning offices, waiting tables, doing data entry, working retail or even lap dancing (all things that I and my friends have done or do to make ends meet) can feel like a kick to the ribs or a punch to the kidneys.
Again and again throughout "Cut" Shuji escapes the violence and pain by immersing himself in what he loves most: cinema. During his beatings Shuji tries to sooth himself with the memories of his screenings. He repeats the titles of the films, the year they were produced and how many people attended each screening. After his fights Shuji lay on the floor of his apartment, basking in the images from films such as Masaki Kobayashi's "Kwaidan" and Kenji Mizoguchi's "Ugetsu Monogatari" and Federico Fellini's "La Strada" as if they will somehow heal his battered body. Naderi contrasts Shuji's shabby apartment covered in movie posters, a place of solace, with the yakuza club house, its walls a pastiche of old boxing posters, a place of punishment. Watching Masaki's thugs pound away at Shuji brings to mind the age old tradition of samurai being able to strike down peasants on a whim, even test the metal of their katana on the still living bodies of prisoners. Naderi's knowledge and passion for Japanese culture and film is evident here, but there are times when "Cut" suffers some of Japanese film's sins as well. Clocking in at 132 minutes "Cut" occasionally exhibits the narrative lag that is seen in so many Japanese films, a point where the plot is momentarily abandoned (or is repeated, or a variation on it is presented) for purely formal reasons. Could there be one too many scenes of Shuji being beaten to a pulp? Maybe, but the overall power of the film's simple story makes it easy to forgive.
We need a film like "Cut" in this age of endless comic book-to-screen adaptations, remakes of classic films and re-imaginings of old TV shows, many of them best left to fade into memory. The character of Shuji is a hero of cinema, just as dynamic and driven as any Hollywood action hero. One only needs to sit breathless in their seat as they witness him match the 100 punches of his final fight with his 100 favorite films of all time. It sounds like an odd exercise, but you could feel the energy of the audience at the North American premiere of "Cut" at the Toronto International Film Festival rise as Naderi flashed the titles of Shuji's most beloved films on the screen as he battled for his life. Who where we all quietly cheering for? Shuji? Yes, but in the end the audience was rooting for film, for film to rise above the multiplex fodder and be great once again. A great film like "Cut" goes a long way to making this happen.