So why should we concern ourselves with this hateful tyrant, whose life the movie traces for nearly half a century starting with his immigration to Japan from Korea in 1920? The most obvious reason is that Kim is played by "Beat" Takeshi Kitano, the Japanese actor-director whose blind-swordsman movie Zatoichi won him best-director honors at last year's Venice Film Festival. Shunpei Kim is Kitano's first lead role under another director in more than a decade, and the best performance of an illustrious career. But an equally important force behind what may be this year's best Japanese movie is Saia veteran director who, despite a scattering of awards for past films like 1993's All Under the Moon, remains Japanese cinema's best-kept secret.
Most of the country's successful directors either make highly commercial films for the domestic market or gratify the international-festival crowd with minimalist fare that plays to foreigners' concepts of Japanese aesthetics. Sai, 55, doesn't fit either modelhis earthy, empathetic stories of immigrants and outsiders are smart without being arty, and he's carved out a niche for himself by using his work to explore his own ethnic-Korean identity. Though his father emigrated from Korea to Japan 80 years ago, Sai, like most of the country's 700,000 residents with Korean roots, is not a Japanese citizen. For much of his life he held a North Korean passport (he switched nationality to South Korean in the mid-'90s). But for most purposes, Sai is thoroughly Japanesehe has lived his entire life in Japan and speaks only elementary Korean. Growing up, he had mixed feelings about being Korean. "I was a little uncomfortable when my father's friends came over," says Sai. "I wanted to know about them, but I didn't want to be like them."
Sai started his career as an assistant to Nagisa Oshima, the father of the Japanese New Wave, known for his controversial subject matter (the 1976 classic In the Realm of the Senses has never been shown uncensored in Japan) and his discipline on the set. Oshima's perfectionism rubbed off on Saithe cast and crew of Blood and Bones took to calling him "mini-Shunpei" for his dictatorial tendencies. Sai also shares his mentor's taste for the seedier corners of society. "I'll leave the stories about honorable lives and upstanding families to other directors," he says. "I'm more interested in people who lack those good qualities."
The resulting charactersChinese gangsters, Filipina bar hostesses, Korean cabbiesmay be poor and desperate, but they're never pitiful. Even the least likeable characters are rascals rather than villains, while the good guys are flawed, picaresque heroes. Being an immigrant, in Sai's world, isn't about preserving cultural traditions. It's a street sensibility that comes with a clear-eyed perspective on Japanese society that most of the country's directorstrapped in a fishbowl of stylized genres and stock characterssorely lack. The result is that the outsider depicts a more realistic Japan than his pure-blooded contemporaries.
Blood and Bones, which was adapted from a semiautobiographical novel by Korean-Japanese author Yang Sok Gil, is a departure from Sai's freewheeling, often humorous style. But the director's gutter humanism and Kitano's steely meanness fuse elegantly in their portrayal of a ruthless man who, as he builds a new life for himself in Japan, is gripped by a need to destroy what he creates. Even as we're repulsed by Kim's violence and heartlessness, we're seduced by his survivor's charismain fact, Kitano's performance is so compelling that Kim's victims have a hard time competing for our compassion. "Takeshi is the only actor I know who's capable of playing such a dark character," says Sai. "I waited six years for him to accept the part, and I wouldn't have made the movie without him." Kitano, for his part, found working with Sai "educational" but traumatic. When the star dislocated his shoulder during a violent scene, Sai told him to hurry up and pop the joint back into place himself. "The man is a devil," jokes Kitano. "He should be arrested." Maybe. But not before he receives his due as the brutal, compassionate conscience of Japanese film.