Friday, May 31, 2013

Cannes 2013: Takashi Miike's Shield of Straw and Johnnie To's Blind Detective


Both Takashi Miike's muscular chase flick Shield of Straw and Johnnie To's wildly compounded romantic policier Blind Detective make an asset out of their respective pillaging of genre signifiers. That these individual films succeed to varying degrees—in some instances in spite of themselves—matters little in the grand scheme of their creators' narratives: Each have made more original films, more consistently compelling films, and flat-out better films. But there's something oddly compelling about their unique existences as notable entries in what now could be considered prestigious filmographies.

For Miike, Shield of Straw represents a logical end point for his increasingly robust cinema. It's certainly a drastic 180 from his last film, 2012's giddily mounted musical For Love's Sake, but it's just as dedicated a diversion. In many ways, it's the ultimate Miike concept film: An admitted rapist and serial killer, in the process of being transported by authorities cross-country, is hunted by an entire populace looking to collect on a bounty of one billion yen. The setup is almost mouth-watering for genre purists, and in the hands of Miike it becomes a predictably grandiose spectacle as the caravan escorting the suspect is forced from highway to railway to skyway as common folk and inside intelligence alike attempt to take down their target. Miike, as usual, has little time for plausibility or exposition. Within minutes the audience has been briefed on the case and thrown head-first into the pursuit, with the film climaxing early on with an incredible tanker-trunk chase that ends as explosively as one might expect. This is essentially Miike giving his fans exactly what they crave on the biggest canvas possible.

Blind Detective, meanwhile, doesn't present To's sensibility on a grand scale so much as it seems to attempt a sort of reconciliation. The filmmaker appears to be cramming an entire career's worth of ideas into 130 minutes, flailing from slapstick comedy to doomed romance to police procedural from scene to scene. By the time the film calms down in its second half, settling into a more compelling investigative angle, the audience will have endured an entire gamut of genre stylings, with hijinks at the expense of the titular hero and broad regional humor that doesn't appear to jibe with the gravity of the characters' intended goal of apprehending a killer who's avoided judgment for over a half decade. Like Miike, To doesn't stick to logic or continuity: There are two willfully ridiculous sequences where our blind detective drives a car while, of course, acknowledging that he cannot, indeed, even see what he's doing—and while To's ambitious amalgam of comedic trappings and grisly crime analysis is just odd enough to remain of interest, it's also atonal in ways that contrast jarringly with his best recent work, such as Life Without Principle and Romancing in Thin Air.

But it is restless cinematic mindsets such as these that have continued to keep Japan and China's genre filmmaking at the forefront of the world's output. Miike and To's American analogues—say, Michael Bay, Michael Mann, and Tony Scott—have each worked through similar periods of creative impatience, and they've also emerged with successes far inferior to what these two manage to touch on here. Shield of Straw is even reminiscent of late-period Scott, its opening shots of florescent corpses strewn among sewage and a hearty mid-film train sequence each seemingly nodding, unconsciously or not, to the late action auteurist. Whatever the results, both Miike and To's past track records and mind-numbing work rate almost preclude too comprehensive an analysis of two films that amount in many respects to that of indulgence. Both Shield of Straw and Blind Detective prove fascinating, often times overwhelming, pieces of larger cinematic puzzles, ones which Miike and To continue to nourish, feverishly producing lest they ever grow complacent. [Slant]

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