Shyamalan Patronizes, Kitano Slashes
By Fernando F. Croce

Honest genre movies are hard to come by nowadays. Gone are the times when, to use Manny Farber's term, such "hack-artists" as Howard Hawks or Don Siegel would take a worn piece of Hollywood machinery and lovingly pencil in their personalities while acknowledging the tradition and importance of the genre fabric. Today the lure of ego-puffed self-assertion almost inevitably bends the lines of, say, a Western or a policier toward either parodic facetiousness or superior disdain. M. Night Shyamalan, since The Sixth Sense heralded as a modern master of the suspense thriller, falls in the latter category with a thud -- always slogging to "subvert," "expand" and "transcend" the pulp juice out of his metaphysical narratives, he steps into his horror yarns all but holding his nose.

The Village is Shyamalan's latest, and again is all hawk and no spit, built around another supposedly flooring twist that forces me to tiptoe around any type of synopsis if readers are to experience the disappointment for themselves. I will give it a shot: In what appears to be an isolated 18th-century colonial hamlet, a precarious truce exists between the stolid townspeople and Those We Don't Speak Of, the growly, porcupine-boar creatures that seem to live beyond the trees surrounding the community. William Hurt and Sigourney Weaver are among the presiding elders; glum youngster Joaquim Phoenix, blind tomboy Bryce Dallas Howard and hammy loony Adrien Brody dare each other to step into the woods. Tragedy strikes, secrets are unearthed and Howard has to prove her pluck by venturing outside the Village.

Despite a weightily ominous air, spikes protruding from the behemoth's back and kids in druid cowls stalking at night, The Village has too much on its mind for mere scares. Far from a shock artist, Shyamalan is message-crazy -- without giving away the game, the narrative is uncloaked (to the audible displeasure of the horror junkies I watched it with) as a solemn parable for therapeutic lies, an apology for post-9/11 isolationism that swamps the value of the O. Henryish whopper (the questioning rather than acceptance of the elders' "reality") with reactionary, regressive utopianism. The lack of irony is dumbfounding -- it suggests that for the characters bewildered by modern terrors, whether they are spirits, superpowers or aliens, solution lies in pacifying faith and blissful ignorance. It wouldn't surprise me if Bush and Chaney were big fans of his work.

As in The Sixth Sense, Unbreakable and Signs, the film is all mood and sneaky build-up, Shyamalan huffing and puffing with his full palette -- portentous camera movements, morbid Christian imagery, creaking and howling in the soundtrack, clunkers like "You have a restless spirit. I know the thing that is in your head" uttered in hushed tones. Jacques Tourneur crafted a graceful sense of dread using similar methods in such genre masterpieces as I Walked With a Zombie and Night of the Demon, but Shyamalan uses them pedantically, as if the horror mechanics were unworthy unless tricked out with lugubrious seriousness. Always academically "suggestive," never quite breaking an egg to make an omelet -- how I wish he were less tasteful and took some lessons on vigorous vulgarity from Romero or Argento, along with some good disembowelments.

For a picture that doesn't condescend to its genre roots, check out The Blind Swordsman: Zatoichi. Takeshi Kitano, who directed it, is if anything a harsher deconstructionist than Shyamalan will ever hope to become -- whether doing urban potboilers, yakuza thrillers or Paper Moon-style heartwarmers, the Japanese one-man cultural wave (in between making movies, he's also a writer, painter, TV personality and musician) just about razes genre expectations to ashes. Even when dismantling conventions, however, Kitano remains aware of genre's importance and expressiveness within a culture -- a belief that keeps him from the utter nihilism of Takashi Miike. That's why the film, for all its sardonic stylistics and plot-scrambling, never descends into winky, derisive pastiche.

Sporting a golden dye job, Kitano plays the title character (under his usual nom de guerre "Beat" Takeshi), an itinerant blind masseur whose shambling gait and wooden cane hide the lightning reflexes of a dicing machine. Wandering through barbaric, samurai-era Japan, he camps out in a small burg, where the farming townspeople are bullied by local bandits and avenging geishas carry out their plots. Not that plot, further perforated by intertwined flashbacks, is of much importance anyway: a staple of Japanese pop culture, having appeared incarnated by the late Shintaro Katsu in about two dozen movies and a TV series since 1962, the Zatoichi character in Kitano's hands is basically a lampoon of the noble wandering warrior of the samurai film, a cunning slicer who cuts a battalion of goons to ribbons one moment and takes an Oliver Hardy pratfall the next.

I can't claim familiarity with the series (I've only seen Zatoichi Meets Yojimbo, with Toshiro Mifune), but it's not hard to spot the stone-faced tomfoolery of Kitano, the deadest pan since Buster Keaton. Though far more of a crowd-pleaser than his earlier Sonatine or Fireworks, with a more conventionally mobile camera and framing, his staging is often breathtakingly idiosyncratic, closer to Jacques Tati (filmic sculpturing in spatial moves) and Jerry Lewis (off-camera sound and gag-deflating) than to Akira Kurosawa. Splatter flies across the screen in rosy-tinged sprays, a long shot of four workers toiling on a field gets rhythmic editing a la Rouben Mamoulian, and the whole shebang wraps with a stomping-out-loud hoedown set to Keiichi Suzuki's fab percussion score.

Though a careless synopsis may suggest the Airplane! of samurai sagas, Zatoichi toils deep in somber themes, never darker than when taking a detour detailing the harsh despoiling of the siblings' innocence as children, recalling Kitano's tenderness toward troubled youngsters in Kids Return and Kikujiro. For all his stylistic playfulness, the director's view of the universe is essentially a discordant one, of violence spilling over a canvas, of goodness always threatened. Yet it is his fondness for genre, miles away from Shyamalan's snootiness, which provides both tension (the bountiful gore-splattered duels are like pressure valves) as well as a sense of healing balance (as in the exhilarating musical finale, every bit as integral to the director's vision of cultural release as the mountaintop bloodbaths). Meditative yet celebratory, Zatoichi's genre games further expose The Village's high-minded, circumscribed pussyfooting.

Reviewed August 3, 2004.

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