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Blood and Bones

Blood and Bones: Korean poster

 

There is no instant of time when one creature is not being devoured by another. Over all these numerous races of animals man is placed, and his destructive hand spares nothing that lives. He kills to obtain food and he kills to clothe himself; he kills to adorn himself; he kills in order to attack and he kills to defend himself; he kills to instruct himself and he kills to amuse himself; he kills to kill. Proud and terrible king, he wants everything and nothing resists him.
 
Joseph De Maistre, Les Soirées de Saint-Pétersbourg (1821)

 

 

 

Following the lecture that Soo-Im Lee gave not so long ago about the zainichi Korean community in Japan, a presentation punctuated by personal narratives delivered with only the faintest quiver in her voice as she mentioned some of the most tragic episodes of a long and troubled history between the peninsula and the Japanese archipelago, it seems appropriate to go back to a film that professor Lee partially showed and commented during her talk, a harrowing film that is both a relevant illustration of her speech and a stand-alone piece of cinema that transcends its subject-matter: Blood and Bones, by Sai Yoichi, a zainichi/kyopo (overseas/ethnic Korean) himself, who lives in Japan and has recently made Soo in Korea under his original Korean name, “Choi Yang-Il” (same Chinese characters, but pronounced differently).

 

 

Sai Yoichi AKA Choi Yang-IlZainichi filmmaker Choi Yang-Il 

The film opened in Japan on November 6, 2004 and swept four Japanese Academy Awards, including Best Actress, Best Director and Best Screenplay, and was nominated in a further eight categories. Acclaimed actor/director “Beat” Takeshi Kitano, turned in what may be the most riveting performance of his career as the disturbingly charismatic character of Korean immigrant Kim-Shun-Pei. In 2005, he won the Award for Best Actor at the Kinema Junpo Awards and at the Mainichi Film Awards.

 

Blood and Bones: family picture

Portrait of a community of shared pain

Loosely based on the eponymous semi-autobiographical novel by Korean-Japanese author Yan Sogiru (Yang Seok-Il), Blood and Bones marks one of the rare times Kitano appears in a leading role under another director’s supervision (most notably, Oshima Nagisa).

Sai reportedly waited six years until Kitano became available and accepted the part. In fact, a lot of the film, which follows both the story of real-life immigrant Kim Shun-Pei and the history of his community, is a matter of patience. This aspect and its persistence are inscribed in the very process of production of the film and install themselves in the continuous procedure of repetition that defines the limits of the scenario, strictly set within the confines of a few streets, despite the epic 60 year time-span.

Blood and Bones painstakingly describes the life of infamy lead by Kim Shun-Pei, an unskilled laborer from Cheju, an isolated island in the far South of Korea (and a popular destination for honeymooners these days), from his arrival in Osaka in 1923, full of dreams and ambitions, for lack of more distinctive qualities, to his unmourned death in North Kora. Expatriated into Japan during the era of its colonial rule over the peninsula, he seems to be seeing/seeking (as do his compatriots) a land of opportunities for fortune, fame (to a lesser extent) and prior to these fantasies, work.

But unlike his fellow immigrants, Kim is a man who knows no law but the one dictated by his own iron will, and hardly any other means of expression than his two fists and his rage, with which he will establish his authority over the small community of his peers, a silent diaspora scattered in a few alleys that will remain their horizon for the rest of the film.

 Shooting fish cake maker

Obsessively focused on its portrayal of Kim, Sai Yoichi’s work presents him as much more and much worse than a run-of-the-mill bad guy beating up everyone around. Far from being banalized, the central, unrivalled and uninterrupted brutality of the character throughout the story bestows a status of exception on his actions. In many respects, they echo the frustrations of the Korean neighborhood, but they also represent an additional force of coercion and oppression, coming straight from its own bowels. Behind the mesmerizing performance of ‘Beat’ Takeshi as the tormenter-in-chief and the odyssey of his singular exile, Blood and Bones conveys another story, watermarked in its nervous system. The underlying narrative here is the tale of the huge human displacements from the  Korean colony to Imperial Japan.

 

Consequently, the film seems to say, the relocated people find themselves metaphorically and literally out of place: dis-located. Kim/Kitano is, of course, the main agent of this dislocation that traverses the film, as he is the driving force of the re-arrangement of the community. It is as if the translation of the Korean group could only take place through the most ferocious violence possible, that is to say, through this monster of a man. His brief disappearance from the first chapters of the film shortly after Sai shows us the early maltreatment of his brother and the rest of the community at the hands of the local Japanese population (otherwise invisible) discreetly implies that the foundation of his fortune originates from a (somewhat Balzacian) crime, relegated off-screen. This way, the extreme violence of his temperament borrows its nature from the self-legitimizing power that historically institutes the law. For this raw foundational power, as is the case for Kim, might is necessarily right.

After months of absence, when the dreaded figure comes back, a diabolus ex machina, with a mysterious acquired wealth (its origin, like the reason behind Kim’s absence, will never be disclosed), it is only logical that the foundation of the central business of the community, a kamaboko (fish cake) factory, should be preceded by a scene of demolition: Kim is shown hammering down a wooden house to make room for the new business.

Soon, the enterprise becomes a success and the ruthless exploitation of his employees enables Kim to become the richest man in the neighborhood, bringing a relative prosperity to his community, if hardly any peace.

 

 

Coming and going with the rain

Odagiri Joe: coming and going with the rain

However, the irruption of a colorful character in the less-than-happy lives of the Korean immigrants disturbs the order brutally established and enforced by Kim. A young man (Odagiri Joe at his best), apparently a yakuza (from his tattoos), claims to be the offspring of a rape that Kim committed a few years and claims his place among his “family”. Arguably one of the strongest sequences of the film, the arrival of this character brings a sense of hope and a hunger for more to the inhabitants of the neighborhood and an alternative to Kim Shun-Pei’s law and order. Aside from standing up to the brute (which gains him the admiration of Kim’s young son, Masao, whose voiceover narrative comments on the various episodes of the film), the new “aniki“ is a completely idle, the perfect polar opposite of his father. It does not take long before both characters confront each other physically in a paroxysmic fight that the young man cannot win. The intruder leaves with some of the money he claimed as his rightful inheritance and the pitiful existence of the small collectivity and Kim’s family can resume its lamentable course, as though this interlude had never been at all.

Years go by but nothing seems to appease the fury that drives Kim to the edge of humanity. Worse, he enlarges his field of action and becomes a loan shark (stereotypes often associate ethnic Koreans with usury in Japan), bringing an increasing number of victims into his destructive sphere of influence. The hard-as-nails usurer also exhibits his turpitude more and more openly: he displays his adulterous affair with a war widow right in front of the conjugal home.

As Kim Shun-Pei forces women’s thighs and his debtors’ doors open, he progressively shuts himself out of all forms of sociality, including the most fundamental one: his own family. Whoever and whatever stands in his way gets the living daylights beaten out of him/her, with or without the stave he always carries around his belt. Wife and children are not spared the treatment. Blood is there to be spilt, and bones to be broken. Or so it seems. Whether he chews meat festering with maggots, rapes his estranged wife, beats his own children senseless (and knock their teeth out in the process), bites into a porcelain cup, kills a pig, grasps smoldering embers with his bare hands to burn one of his employee’s face, Kim (or Kitano) only exists through physical strength, a pure degenerate power that breaks up any form of social contract or contest with his bare fists. The strength of the film is to keep up with this in the long (very long) run - and to persist telling its story within a very limited space of action, confined to the representation of this primary brutality, only following the broken line of brawling and breaking beings.

And yet, intimated under the manzai (comedian)’s scarred skin, a sort of pure frightening force, not beyond good or evil, but very far from either of them, glares perceptibly… so that Kim Shun-Pei appears as a man inhabited by a violence that is greater than himself, enhanced rather than qualified by the willful flatness of a mise en scène that remains at a distance from the “sanctity of the human heart” (N. Hawthorne) and as near rough reality as possible. Epic in scope, the film operates in restraint and, in a way, within the quasi-privacy of a huis clos.

 

 

Care for a cup of blood?

“Care for a nice cup of blood?”

In the end, the viewer comes out of this story a little crushed, a bit knocked out in front this gruesome spectacle that shows us a body that can only express itself outside social and moral restraint, a body obsessed with his own survival; a spectacle that is the subterranean version of what could simply be a melodrama or a family sage about the misfortunes of a brute. No excuses or reasons are given for Kim’s behavior, simply presented as such: brutal, raw, unjustifiable (Kitano reportedly saw in the role a cathartic means to exorcise the painful memory of his own father, an alcoholic and a violent man). But the madness that comes over him contaminates the house, the street, the space of the film, to the point that it composes a sort of sick opera, against the grain of the polite academic genre that historical drama can be.

 

The confrontation

 

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