‘Great lessons are often found in defeat.’
There’s a lot to enjoy in Guy Moshe’s cocktail of East meets West – a criminally underrated film that utilizes digital production techniques to blend both pop cultural references with more than enough nods to the art house and early cinema. Part German expressionism, martial arts, video game, film noir, sci-fi, fantasy and comic book – it would be easy to label such a post modern mix of styles a pretentious affair. But where the visual layers unfold, the story follows a simple structure of heroic stereotypes and paper-thin plot which some will argue is its downfall.
In a world reminiscent of communist rule, guns have been outlawed and the sword is once again the way of the warrior. Nicola the Woodcutter (Ron Perlman) rules with an iron fist, accompanied by his femme fatale, Alexandra (Demi Moore), nine lethal assassins and his Red Gang that instill more than enough fear amongst the locals. While The Woodcutter’s right hand man, Killer no.2 (Kevin McKidd) taps dances his way through a barrage of assailants closer to a scene from West Side Story, our two protagonists, androgynous samurai, Yoshi (Gackt) and The Drifter (Josh Hartnett) clash in their quest to seek out the evil tyrant. Guided by the wisdom and intuition of The Bartender (Woody Harrelson), our two protagonists cast aside their differences and use combined skills to inspire the downtrodden citizens to forge an army of their own. Through set pieces closer to theatre and reminiscent of silent cinema, our heroes break bones and crack skulls as the screen literally cuts and folds like the pages of a pop-up book and graphic novel.
Closer in comparison to Stephen Chow (Kung-Fu Hustle) than Robert Rodriguez’s Sin City, Moshe’s myriad of influences are clearly worn on his sleeve. Here is a filmmaker opening his toy box and although certain ideas seem lost in the sandpit at times, the narrative moves along at just the right pace. It is here where Moshe uses his devices effectively to remind you of role play – the title, Bunraku – a form of Japanese theatre in which puppeteers, dressed in black and invisible to the audience, manipulate their characters, accompanied by a chanted narration and musical instruments – a perfect, one word summary, if ever there was one.
This isn’t a film about depth of story but more a film that allows the visuals to piece the narrative together – which is what all good films should do. Turn the sound off and this is a masterstroke and genuine return to tradition. In that respect, Bunraku works on the levels it was intended.