Thursday, September 25, 2008

VIFF must-see: United Red Army

In the late 1960's and early 1970's, Japan, like many other first world nations, was home to student uprisings and radical movements, the most extreme of which was likely the Red Army Faction (also known, after merging with another student group, as the United Red Army). They participated in hijackings, robberies, explosions and killings, though films about the group tend to focus more on violence done to their own members than to outsiders, since, at a hideway in Gunma, they participated in fanatical purges of those within who were deemed ideologically impure - purges which left several members dead. These purges will be familiar to exploitation film fans as the focal point of the famously extreme Kichiku Dai Enkai (roughly translated, with added alliteration, as The Big Banquet of Beasts).

I admire Kichiku, as it's usually known here, chiefly because it is quite beautiful at times (!) and has a deeply resonant simplicity to it that strikes the viewer in the very bowels. Its sometimes extreme goriness and sense of utter hysteria - for example, in the famous "blow-his-head-off-and-play-with-his-brains" sequence, pictured above - bring us beyond possibly fascist, misanthropic, or (some have suggested) anti-female readings into a confrontation with the capacity of human beings to degenerate utterly; we're forced to experience the madness in our flesh and the horror of the human dynamic when a group spins out of control, and I take its deep resonance as proof that it gets at SOMETHING true - something that each viewer must churn over in his or her own gut - whatever questions it may leave one asking about the filmmaker's intent.

Where Kichiku Dai Enkai fails utterly, however, is in conveying any sense of self-purging extremism as an ideological phenomenon. That's one of the reasons I have a hard time seeing it as a right-wing film, in fact, as some people have suggested it is, because it fails so completely as a representation of the left; or perhaps "fails" isn't really the word, because it doesn't begin to even try. One suspects the young filmmaker, growing up in ideologically "innocent" times, has reconstructed events - taking great liberties - to tell his story in the only way he can understand it, which doesn't leave much room for quoting Mao or talking about solidarity with this oppressed group or that - ideas that simply aren't part of his framework. The gang in the film are motivated not by a desire for an inner purity or by an insanely rigorous need to subordinate all members to the collective will - they're just pissed off at certain members for having narked on them, and could be any outlaw group. Even though I like Kichiku, I acknowledge that this is a problem, since it overwrites real history and replaces actions that were politically motivated (or at least politically rationalized) with personal vendettas and power struggles, erasing a level of discourse that WAS important to the events it is based on, and further contributing to a worldwide impoverishment of political thinking. That most of its audience, especially in North America, won't even be aware of this as an issue is itself an example of why this is problematic; exposed primarily to corporate media or shallow, self-serving demagogues like Michael Moore, people are losing the ability to understand radical action, revolutionary ideals, or any of the thought that motivated them, all of which is especially important when asking questions about how a group of idealistic young students with the best of intentions could end up withdrawing from the world and killing their own weakest members in the name of their cause. Like the Cambodian Killing Fields or the grimness of daily life in the USSR, the questions provoked by such actions are deeply important especially for leftists, prefer as they may to look away; by pretending such things never happened, and refusing to learn from these lessons, the left basically closets itself away in a dreamer's paradise, surrendering the sphere of the real to the powers that be... It's like Christians who simply don't want to consider that people were burned at the stake in the name of their religion...

Koji Wakamatsu's United Red Army - playing again on Monday at the VIFF - does not flinch for a second from these questions, and the end result is troubling indeed. The official site is here (in Japanese), the trailer is here, an article about the film by Mark Schilling - in English - is here; but trust me that those interested in Japanese history, left-wing radicalism, or serious cinema will find it rewarding. It's quite long, but very compelling, and the taxing prelude, which brings us up to speed on the history of student action in Japan and introduces us to the 20-something-year-old revolutionaries at hand - will serve you well once the rather claustrophobic central actions, at the hideout in Gunma, are underway. I don't have much of a critique to offer, with which to leaven my enthusiasm - it seems odd that Wakamatsu on the one hand wants to show "young people today" how much more serious past generations were, while at the same time chronicling the excesses of the group, who seem ultimately about as serviceable as role models as the kids in Battle Royale II - but I wanted to pique people's curiosity; it's well worth your time, and also a necessary corrective to Kichiku. Wakamatsu is an older and wiser man, with a long history in Japanese cinema; it's great that he's gone back here and offered viewers a look into how things were.
Oh, and rest assured: no brains are played with in the course of the film.

By the way: you'll be wondering as United Red Army plays who wrote the score - a subdued but effective and timely psychedelic rock soundtrack. It's not out of perversity that I won't tell you; I want you to be pleasantly surprised when the credits roll. I was. Good work, man!

Parking, also seen today, is a good film, too, but so much gentler and less overwhelming than United Red Army that I can think of nothing to say about it. More reports from the front will follow.

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