Thursday, May 16, 2013

“54-40 or We’ll Fuck Up Your Movie”: How the Senkaku Controversy (and Some Bad Business Decisions) Torpedoed What Promised to be a Fantastic Collaboration between Kiyoshi Kurosawa and Tony Leung Chiu-wai

Dear Octopus enthusiasts, I want to speak to you about the tragic scuttling of a promising film project.  I was on the Wikipedia the other day, trying to find out what Japanese horrorist Kiyoshi Kurosawa had been up to lately.  Following his 2008 masterpiece Tokyo Sonata, we in the United States had not seen any new films from him.  But it looks like 2012-13 have been busy years for him.  In 2012, he directed a TV miniseries called Penance, which, if the trailer is any indication, looks excellent.  Christ knows if/when we’ll get to see it in the U.S.  And then in 2013 he released a film called Real which (again, based on the trailer) looks like some kind of less bloody, more Salingerian version of Jurassic Park (I say this because A. the film is based on a book called A Perfect Day for Plesiosaur and B. there is definitely a plesiosaur in the trailer).  Now, the Wiki points out that Kurosawa’s films often feature characters obsessed with strange and unusual projects and I think this is especially the case in the less explicitly horror-y films in his oeuvre: the maintenance of the weird tree in Charisma (1999); the cultivation of the jellyfish in Bright Future (2004).  So engineering a modern-day plesiosaur in densely populated Japan fits right in.

Kiyoshi Kurosawa.
But 2013 was also supposed to see the production of a fucking amazing sounding film called 1905, which would feature Tony Leung Chiu-wai (in his first Japanese film role) as a loan shark who travels to Japan to collect debts from five Chinese students/revolutionaries.  These same Chinese expats are also being pursued by members of a Japanese ultra-nationalist organization.  This movie promised a fascinating depiction of the rich cultural and political ferment that saw hundreds of Chinese students and revolutionaries (including no less a figure than Sun Yat-sen) travel to independent, rapidly-industrializing Japan.  In 1905, the Japanese government was asserting itself on the world stage and waging an ultimately victorious war against the Russians in Korea and Manchuria.  While almost every other Asian state had either been colonized by Europeans/Americans (Indochina, Malaysia, Burma, Indonesia, the Philippines) or deprived of meaningful sovereignty by the imposition of unfair trade and extraterritoriality agreements (China and Korea, the latter of which was soon to be annexed into the Japanese Empire, which would eventually become just as much of a colonial threat as Britain or France), Japan remained free and powerful; for nationalists and revolutionaries throughout Asia, Japan was a model of modernization and resistance to Euro-American imperialism.  The Japanese—by brute force, if necessary—would force the Westerners (a term I dislike, but it’s convenient here) to treat Asians as equals.

So this is the scenario that would have been depicted in Kurosawa’s film.  And it would have had Tony Leung Chiu-wai, who’s just the best: I’ve never not liked him in every movie I’ve seen him in.  It also would have provided Kurosawa with another opportunity to branch out, Cronenberg-like, from the horror genre in which he made his name.  Now, I personally hold the horror genre in high esteem, so I don’t think a good horror filmmaker necessarily needs to make other films, but if a talented filmmaker wants to try other things, then I certainly don’t begrudge him or her that inclination.  And the unfortunate fact of the matter is that even the best filmmakers can become “pigeon-holed” within the genres they’ve mastered, and so it is always a victory for them to make great films in other genres. 

Let’s consider Cronenberg, for instance, who has already gone through the generic territory that Kurosawa is now exploring; twenty-five years ago, with Cronenberg about to release his adaptation of William S. Burroughs’ Naked Lunch, it would have been hard to imagine that he would eventually make gangster films like A History of Violence and Eastern Promises and period pieces like M. Butterfly and A Dangerous Method.  Now, Kurosawa has been fortunate in that he established that he could work outside of the horror genre much earlier on in his career than did Cronenberg.(well, once his career had taken off, that is; Kurosawa was directing pink movies in the early ‘80’s; it was only in 1997, with the release of Cure, his first film with leading man Koji Yakusho, that he became one of the respected pioneers in the revival of the Japanese horror film (which would soon be called “J-horror”)).  In ’99 he made Charisma, as I’ve already mentioned, which is weird as fuck but which I wouldn’t call “horror,” and 2004’s Bright Future is a realistic piece of bleak chic, and it’s horrifying in that respect, but it’s more like a British kitchen-sink drama (maybe Kes with jellyfish?) than Ju-On.  And with 1905, Kurosawa would have had the opportunity to make his first costume drama/period piece/and maybe noir (I don’t know how the double-headed pursuit of these Chinese revolutionaries would have played out).

But now let’s answer the big question: What prevented 1905 from getting made? One word: Senkaku.  Or really, maybe two words: Senkaku/Diaoyu.  Yes, just as 1905 was preparing for production, the Chinese and Japanese governments renewed their acrimony over the uninhabited South China Sea rocks known as Senkaku in Japanese (and it’s the Japanese who govern them, which they have done since 1894; hell, maybe that could have figured in the movie?) and Daioyu in Chinese.  And under these circumstances, it appears that Tony Leung Chiu-wai would have found himself under significant political pressure if he travelled to Japan to make a Japanese movie (portions of the film were also going to be shot in Taiwan, which probably wouldn’t have thrilled the Chinese government, but it’s more of an accepted practice for Hong Kong and Mainland Chinese actors to work in Taiwan and vise-versa).  Oh, also, one of the two co-distributors of the film, Prenom H, went bankrupt.  But the other distributor was Shochiku, which is the oldest studio in Japan and surely they could have gotten the money together to make this movie happen.  No, more than anything else, it looks like it was nationalism—stupid island nationalism—that sank this work of art.  Now, let me say that I think all nationalisms are stupid, but there’s something especially idiotic about the various conflicts over these uninhabited East Asian rocks, over not one of which would it be worth shedding even a single drop of blood.  In fact, let me resolve the disputes right now: Senkaku remains Japanese, Dokdo remains Korean, the Kurils are returned to Japan from Russia, and the Spratley and Paracels are divided up such that each island goes to which ever country it’s closest too; there solved.

The utterly desolate Senkaku islands are in the red circle. (Image courtesy of Wikipedia).
So, let us all take to heart this cautionary tale about the perils of nationalistic saber-rattling.  Nationalism isn’t just a killer; it’s also an arch-philistine, and, unless people change their mindsets and free themselves from the grip of the jingoists and demagogues, 1905 will not be the last work of art that it sabotages.

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