Beautiful Blood on Your
Successors to GWG
“Gun Crazy” (2002)
Seemingly inspired by the conventions of “Spaghetti
Westerns,” Atsushi Muroga’s “Gun Crazy, Episode 1: A Woman from Nowhere”
(“Fukushuu No Kouya”) features the familiar figure of a lone vengeance-seeker
who rides into a frontier town seeking a confrontation with a notorious
bandit. Other familiar genre elements include a stranger with no
background who registers at a seedy hotel before staging a confrontation
in a saloon and recruiting the assistance of a colorful but violence-shy
local character. Genre analysis is put to the test here. Is
“Gun Crazy” actually an anachronistic “Eastern Western” set in 2002 Okinawa?
A self-referential amalgam of Western, Yakuza
and GWG action film conventions, “A Woman from Nowhere” stars Ryoko Yonekura
as “Saki,” a two-fisted shooter who packs a pair of 9 mm automatics and
arrives astride a Harley-Davidson. The lawless frontier in
this instance is provided by the intertwined civilian and military base
culture of Okinawa, complete with washed-up alcoholic town cop (Shun Sugata).
Yonekura’s character “Saki” is visually stunning – beautiful yet ambiguous.
In addition to leathers and knee-high motorcycle boots she also has an
articulated brace on her left leg, and whimpers when an American soldier
gropes that leg in a bar. Yonekura manages to be convincingly tough
without also being a parody. When shot, “Saki” goes down. When
kicked, she folds up. When struck and stamped on, she bruises and
“Saki’s” erratic vengeance mission at times courts
suicide. In one of the film’s best scenes, “Saki” is pawed and propositioned
by two American soldiers in a bar. After delivering several punishing
kicks, “Saki” beats them to the draw with a pair of 9 mm automatics in
a spring-loaded rig concealed in her coat sleeves. The slow motion
gunfire is as good as the genre gets. In another interesting sequence,
“Saki” dumps the bloody body of another heavily wounded American soldier
(a Japanese-American played by Takeshi Yamato) into the back of a pickup,
along with two suitcases of illegal cash stolen from the U.S. base.
Political undertones concerning the ambiguous Japanese perspective on the
continuing U.S. military occupation (the setting is in Japan but is not
a part of Japan, as one character puts it) alternate with Yonekura’s unusual
and sometimes incongruous facial expressions.
Yonekura’s performance spans the range of negative
emotions, but has a compelling edge of real instability. Smiling
while fingering a combat knife, frowning in perplexity at the consequences
of her rashness, she presents a figure whose intense oddness is finally
traced to a horrific childhood murder 15 years before. As a little
girl, “Saki” is placed in the driver’s seat of a truck that will tear apart
her policeman father if she releases the brake. This is rendered
inevitable by vicious mutilation of her leg, so the young “Saki” is forced
to give in to pain and physical weakness. She subsequently experiences
amputation and fitting of a prosthetic leg, and later appears to have considered
suicide. The adult “Saki” is definitely not an individual to be casually
groped in a bar.
The rest of the narrative plays out as a yakuza
actioner, involving a series of bloody and well-choreographed slow-motion
gunfights. By the final scene, “Saki” has been shot, battered and
has had her artificial limb shot off. However, in an ultimately symbolic
act of retribution, she uses both the knife that mutilated her as a child
and a rocket launcher concealed in her prosthetic limb to exact vengeance
on the yakuza “Tojo” (Shingo Tsurumi) who killed her father. At their
final face off, he sneeringly taunts her with responsibility for killing
her own father, and even suggests she should be glad she lost the limb
responsible for his death, since she must have hated this part of her body.
But in the end, true vengeance is actually dispensed by a disabled person
– and is made possible by the disability itself.
Although not distinguished by particularly high
or sophisticated production values, “Gun Crazy, Episode 1” is nevertheless
competently filmed with some interesting location shooting and good close-ups.
Muroga provides glimpses of the past, but stays his hand until the end
before revealing “Saki’s” secret. The martial arts choreography and
use of wirework may be weaknesses, but the gunplay is among the best of
this genre in use of slow motion effects. During the final face-off
it is unclear whether the scene more closely resembles a Western gunfight
or prelude to a clash of samurai. “A Woman from Nowhere” is the first
in a series, and is easily the best of the four titles released so far.
Its relatively short running time of 67 minutes contributes to dramatic
At the end, her mission completed, a repaired
“Saki” mounts her Harley and disappears up the causeway. Other Japanese
GWG films often do not live up to their promise and are vitiated by gratuitous
exploitation elements. “A Woman from Nowhere” wisely stays very close
to the GWG action formula and may be one of the best of its type.
Yonekura has the stature, physical conditioning and exercise-honed flexibility
to engage in some convincing action sequences. But it is her acting
– especially her offbeat facial expressions – more than the kicks and pistols,
that delivers the real visual pleasure.
“H: Murmurs” (2002)
“Mi-Yun Kim,” superbly played by Jung-ah Yum,
is the lead investigator into a series of gruesome murders of young women.
Yum’s acting skill layers empathy, sadness, hatred and the cumulative effects
of catastrophic loss behind “Detective Kim’s” resolutely deadpan exterior.
Her passion is cold, snuffed out by dangerously controlled anger.
As theories of motive multiply with the bodies, “Kim” painstakingly deciphers
the gory gynecologic symbolism of the killer’s acts. His crimes mysteriously
seem to recapitulate those of an already-convicted killer, “Hyun Shin”
(Seung-woo Cho), now on death row.
Director Jong-hyuk Lee slowly reveals that this
individual has enacted an exquisitely organized continuation of his crimes
via hypnotic influence. Although the science behind this may be junk,
the cast delivers powerfully credible performances. In their desperation
to prevent more killings, the police investigators resort to rougher tactics.
But even after the last suspect has committed suicide and the convicted
murderer “Shin” has been executed, the killing continues.
A terrible ambiguity pervades the entire investigation.
One of “Kim’s” men, “Detective Kang” (Jin-hee Ji) is strangely present
– or absent – at crime scenes. “Kim” is almost killed after discovering
the body of “Shin’s” former therapist. As “Kim” discovers the origins
of “Shin’s” fear and hatred of women, she also grasps – too late – the
secret of his influence from a prison cell, as well as the identity of
the actual killer. In front of the astonished gaze of her other investigator,
“Kim” calmly smokes a final cigarette before equally calmly executing the
Jung-Ah Yum is herself hypnotic as the driven,
tightly wrapped “Inspector Kim.” She veers between icy determination
and moments of all-too-human hesitation before rounding a corner to confront
the unknown. Sometimes it seems unclear whether “Kim” may ultimately
use her weapon on someone else or herself. The internal fracture
in the character of “Kim” quietly bleeds sadness as the chase ricochets
through a claustrophobic maze of urban alleyways, fetid apartments and
dank building hallways. The film opens in a dark, rain sodden garbage
dump and closes on a bright expanse of sunlit beach. The sunlight,
however, fails to dispel the effects of contact with the dark abyss that
has confronted the survivors.
“No Blood No Tears” (2002)
The betrayal and ambiguity of “Bound” intersect
with the distinctive narrative conventions of “Memento” in this intriguing
women’s friendship film that director Seung-Wan Ryu has described as “pulp
noir.” Noir elements include extensive use of contrast and deep shadow
as well as betrayal and plot complexity. Hye-young Lee plays a world-weary
cab driver “Gyung-sun” who struggles to make ends meet to pay off her ex-husband’s
gambling debt. Living alone in meager surroundings and separated
from her daughter, “Gyung-sun” has to fend off the malevolent and occasionally
violently abusive attention of drunken fares, loan sharks and the police.
Her marginal existence literally collides, in the form of a traffic accident,
with that of the equally desperate “Soo-jin” (Do-yeon Jun) who is being
relentlessly battered by her ex-boxer boyfriend “Puldok” (Jae-Yeong Jeong).
After “Gyung-sun” stands up to him at the accident scene, “Soo-jin” is
impressed by her stand and seeks her out.
Gradually, the two women form a tentative bond
marked by shared adversity but mutual suspicion – “Soo-jin” an aspiring
singer controlled by an abusive boyfriend and a scar on her face, and “Gyung-sun”
by ever-present risk of arrest or worse associated with a criminal past
in her character’s backstory. When “Soo-jin” suggests an elaborate
scam to steal the sizeable proceeds of her boyfriend’s illegal dogfighting
operation, “Gyung-sun” initially refuses but is driven to change her mind
after another beating by loan sharks. Violence against women is foregrounded
in a withering critique of abusive male behavior and patriarchal norms
throughout the film. The opening scene of leering, groping entitlement
of a drunken fare in “Gyung-sun’s” cab, “Puldok’s” beatings and verbal
abuse, a scene of domestic violence in a family-run restaurant, and the
brutality of every male character all implicate the abuse of power by men.
Even the investigating police detective relies on intimidation and coercion,
ultimately falling into the same pattern of control. As “Gyung-sun”
says, “Pretending to be a kind old man to get info was disgusting.”
The film also explores the ways in which such
coercive assumptions corrupt women’s relations even with each other.
When “Soo-jin” builds some additional layers of protection into her plot
to steal the money and mislead various partners, “Gyung-sun” is all too
easily persuaded that her new partner has eloped with one of her boyfriend’s
henchmen. It is only after the two women fight – nearly draining
each other’s strength in a dangerously premature confrontation – that the
misunderstanding and the real threat are discovered. “Puldok”, bleeding
and battered from an earlier confrontation with gang members and the police,
staggers into the garage where “Soo-jin” and “Gyung-sun” have met.
This time his vicious assumptions prove fatal as he delivers a final beating
to both women. When “Soo-jin” finally reacts, the camera provides
a close-up of her tightening fist before she counter-attacks. “Puldok’s”
torrent of verbal and physical abuse spurs “Gyung-sun” to a final superhuman
effort, fueled by accumulated rage. She stabs him in the neck with
a car key. This scene, shot in a muddy, broken-down garage with rain
pouring in, culminates in a life-and-death struggle between sweating, bleeding,
battered protagonists who are soaked and filthy. As “Puldok’s” carotid
blood sprays into the rain and he finally collapses in the mire, “Soo-jin”
and “Gyung-sun” can only watch exhausted as the money is taken by a petty
criminal – a bartender and police informant – who has been following them.
Seemingly now released from the presence of the
money and threat of pursuit, “Soo-jin” and “Gyung-sun” contemplate their
fate in the harsh light of day, seated side by side on a nearly deserted
beach nursing their injuries. In adversity they have found both common
cause and ironic mutual appreciation, and commit to jointly open a restaurant.
Within the narrative conventions of Asian cinema this represents a powerful
affirmation of bonding, solidarity and normalcy – an approximation to “happy
ever after.” “Soo-jin” still talks about becoming a singer, but now
“Gyung-sun” may become her manager. These are among several subtle
indicators that “Gyung-sun” might well replace “Puldok” in “Soo-jin’s”
life. “Gyung-sun” cuts an androgynous figure in her taxi driver’s
uniform, pants and work shoes. She displays resilience and courage
while fighting for “Soo-jin” as well as jealous ruthlessness in slaying
“Soo-jin’s” boyfriend in front of her in a scene of primal implications.
These matters settled she at last plans to re-unite with her daughter.
The film’s final scene appears conclusive. After “Soo-jin” and “Gyung-sun”
lay their plans for a new life together, the camera pans to a close-up
of “Soo-jin’s" car keys – the instrument of “Gyung-sun’s” murderous power
– and lingers on a key ring photograph of “Soo-jin” and her former boyfriend.
The symbolism of photographs to convey relationship
messages is foreshadowed earlier in the film. While “Soo-jin” contemplates
the betrayal of her affection and loyalty, there is a montage of photographs
from happier days with views of her boyfriend snoring on the sofa or sitting
on the toilet. “Gyung-sun’s” use of a key as a weapon is also anticipated
in a previous fight with loan sharks, while additional associations between
keys and autonomous action are suggested by “Gyung-sun’s” hotwiring a car
(after looking for a key) to follow “Soo-jin.”
Although in parts an action comedy, the comic
elements serve mainly to disrupt the action narrative in accordance with
pause-burst-pause conventions of Asian action cinema. Comic elements
also ridicule many stock elements of these same conventions, and heighten
contrast with the grim action scenes. Du-Hong Jeong shines as a lethal
enforcer who speaks not a single line of dialog. Overall, this is
an engaging and occasionally moving work with solid production values,
excellent acting by the leads and a strong social message backed up by
layers of intrigue and symbolism.