...a unity of eyes and firelight...

Chi to Hone (Blood and Bones)

In Film, Reviews on November 16, 2011 at 3:52 am

Yoichi Sai, 2004

Chimneys, incinerators.  Industry, death.  Smoke.

Blood and Bones starts with a scene featuring a boat full of Koreans emigrating to Japan.  We see their excitement as someone sights Osaka in the distance – all chimneys and smoke and industry.  We get a close-up of one young man’s face, his eyes lit up with expectation and hope.  It could be the start of a tale of the hardworking economic migrant, a paean to that dream of a new land fostered or used as a device by so many films.  But that expectation and hope that we see in the young man’s eyes is immediately complicated by the narrator, who tells us that this is his father, Kim Shun-Pei, who has always stood in his way, ‘like a brick wall.’

The oppression of Koreans – first by the Japanese, and then by Kim Il-Sung – provides the historical backdrop for the movie, but it is the oppression of a family by a violent father that is explored here, and the oppression by the same man of the workers in his factory.  It is a portrait of a relentlessly violent, proud man who is enraged by the world and can not contain this rage.  He is excellently played by Takeshi Kitano, inspiring awe, fear and even wonder.  Kitano’s steely, unblinking visage was made for this role.

His unthinking determination and commitment to violence, money and power is remarkable.  He survives longer than his wife, his daughter and his mistress.  It is at his daughter’s funeral that he finally shows some weakness – he takes on an entire room of younger men, and wins, but then has a stroke.  He reaches out to his wife, tenderly telling her he can not move his leg.  She tells him to ‘Go up and die.’  For once, he is unable to retaliate.

But this is not the first show of compassion from Kitano.  Earlier on, his mistress becomes unwell with a brain tumour which leaves her disabled, unable to speak or walk.  We see him tenderly pouring a bath and then washing her.  The camera lingers as he cleans her abdomen and then her breasts.  The scene is just long enough to raise one’s anxiety that he might take the opportunity to abuse her, to subject her to his sexual will as he had done before her illness.  But he does not.

This anxiety in the viewer runs throughout the film.  There is more than one rape scene, the first of which is uncomfortably long.  I was wincing throughout, hoping for it to end, but it dragged on and on, Kitano’s expression not changing, his wife’s screams not yielding.

Several scenes of violence between men are not only uncomfortable and uncomfortably long, but comical at the same time.  In the daughter’s funeral described above, a few of the mourners are carting around the dead body while he destroys the entire room.  They manage to avoid the various missiles that come in their direction and eventually upend a table to protect the body.  In another scene he breaks into his son’s house to beat him.  While searching for him, he destroys everything in his path.  Meanwhile the son, Masao, breaks into his house and attempts to destroy everything there.  His inexpert demolition merely leaves a couple of holes in a wardrobe.  When his father returns, he vaults through a window and then performs a comedy escape run down the street.

In one of the final scenes of the film, the older, weaker Shun-Pei visits his son at a diner in which he is working.  Masao tells him to ‘do whatever the fuck you want, same as you always have.’  He reaches over with his walking stick to strike him, but just manages to poke him in the chest.  One is reminded of Monty Burns giving a man ‘the beating of your life.’

The film finishes with the same scene with which is started, Shun-Pei smiling as the smoke of industry hangs over Osaka.  We interpret his expression differently now; is it the idea of a new stomping ground that pleases him, is it the anticipation of new people whom he might subject to his will and his fist?  It is not the only smoke we have seen in the film.  The camera lingers on the black billowing from the incinerator after his wife’s funeral.  And in the penultimate scene we see another son watch his last breath.  In the cold of North Korea, under a heap of blankets, his last expiration leaves a puff of white in the air, still above his motionless face.  Finally, this force of nature has been stopped.


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