When is a remake not a remake? The answer: when it’s not a remake.
Released in 2013, Lee SangIl’s Japanese production of Unforgiven was met with tepid American reviews. (The few that there are.) When considering Eastwood’s coolly efficient directing, the mesmerizing performances of Hackman, Eastwood, Freeman and company and the resurrection of the one, true American film genre, the Western, it’s no surprise that critics embrace Eastwood’s original. But Lee’s movie is not a slight effort. If critics were to view Lee’s as a reinterpretation of David Webb People’s original script, as opposed to a remake of Eastwood’s film, I think the response would have been far more favorable.
The movie starts with a chase. It’s 1869 and the Meiji Restoration is still in the early days of stripping away the remnants of the Tokugawa shogunate. In heavy snowfall, the Emperor’s army has cornered Jubei (Ken Watanabe), a samurai whose place in society has been deemed obsolete. His fight or flight instinct has been uneasily locked in flight mode. It’s now time to fight. Or more specifically, to kill. Cut to 1880. Jubei now has a small but barren farm on the island of Hokkaido, a wife that has passed and two small children who know as well their father that hunger awaits them in the coming winter. Though he gave his word to his late wife that he would no longer to pick up a sword to kill, desperation leaves him with little choice. The horse is saddled and off he rides with Kingo, an acquaintance that told him about a bounty placed on two men who cut up a prostitute.
What ensues is a dialectic of the past and present. There is the collision of the old law vs. the new law. Jubei’s position as a member of the old military caste is overtaken by Sato, the lawman in charge of a frontier town. Jubei himself rattles around with a dialectic conflict as he tries to reconcile his murderous past and his promise to ride a straight moral line. When he realizes that his nature will force him to compromise his promise, he laments but eventually, he kills again. There are constant visual reminders of his promise to straighten up and fly right. Lee inserts straight lines in almost all of his interior shots. Straight lines on walls, doors, floors, fixtures, fences. But in the end, all of it burns down.
Lee is a Zainichi – an ethnic Korean in Japan. Zaninichi have always been systematically relegated and officially oppressed by the Japanese government. This alienation manifests in the movie’s depiction of the Ainu – an indigenous people in the northern island of Hokkaido. The movie takes a narrative detour to depict violence against the Ainu by the Emperor’s Army, perhaps as a nod to the oncoming notion of nationalism that contributed to the eventual rise of Japan as a colonial empire. It’s a compelling aside but could have been excised without impacting the movie’s progression. Similarly, a secondary character played by Jun Kunimura (the English Bob character in Eastwood’s Unforgiven) could have been left on the cutting room floor. Much like Eastwood’s film, the performances here are outstanding. In particular, the mad dogging glares by Eiko Koike as the brothel’s lady in charge are entertaining and menacing. The film is admirably shot by Norimichi Kasamatsu in what had to be a challenging shoot. Various weather conditions are part of the visual motif: sun, snow and rain all cycle through the film in different terrain.
Unforgiven deserves to be seen when the viewer divorces this film from the original. Once I committed, the only time I thought about the original was to wonder if it’s as good as this one.