Part of the World Cinema programme for the 49th London Film Festival, and based on a best-selling semi-autobiographical novel, the film chronicles six decades of a family whose patriarch migrates from North Korea to Japan in 1923. It is a portrait of a cruel tyrant Kim Sunpei, played by Kitano ‘Beat’ Takeshi, the consummate master of characters prone to sudden outbursts, as in ‘Violet Cop’ and the more recent ‘Katouichi’, as well as an accomplished director of the exquisitely beautiful films such as ‘Hana-Bi’.
Audiences complain of about the graphically depicted and apparently meaningless violence, but a clue is contained in the opening sequence. A high-angle shot of a boat carrying passengers dressed in white heads towards a horizon full of grey smoke and factory chimneys. Only the prow and foredeck of the boat are visible, so it resembles a bullet heading for a hellish target. The smoking city is Osaka and the main protagonist, introduced in voice –over as the narrator’s father, is a young man smiling at the prospect of his new life. The shot recurs at the end of the film as Sunpei lies on his deathbed, his grave dug in readiness by the son he has held in unwilling captivity to tend his old age. Its meaning reinforced by other scenes depicting the harsh consequences of proclaiming national loyalties, and the cost of even a minimal integration into Japanese society, it indicts the immigrant experience as a brutalising force which find fertile ground in Sunpei’s character. The director, himself a second generation Korean immigrant whose earlier prize-winning films have taken an unsentimental view of immigrant life in Osaka, waited for six years before his lead player was available and it is hard to imagine better suited to the role.
Sunpei uses his power to terrorise not only his family, his wife in particular, but his employees at his fishcake factory, taking a live coal to the face of one who asks for a raise. Sunpei’s tenderness to his mistress after her operation for a brain tumour is the only glimpse of humanity to be seen in this misogynistic miser, who scrabbles among vegetable waste to make soup despite the banknotes he conceals behind the wallpaper. When he finally sets up as a loan shark he allows his graphic taste for revenge on defaulters full rein, stabbing his arm as he accuses one of them of ‘drinking his blood’. Recalling an earlier pig-killing sequence, where Sunpei was in uncharacteristically jovial mood, sharpening a large knife, then delightedly sticking into the strung-up pig’s throat. The incident is one of many in which the fascination of the detailed ghetto-life fuses with Sunpei’s menacing presence. This piling on of gruesome detail, as when he casually blows maggots from putrefied pork before happily consuming it, eventually provokes the laughter of horrified incredulity
Haha! Violent Cop, of course.