Director Lee Sang-il's weighty Samurai tale Unforgiven or Yurusarezaru Mono is in cinemas from today. Earlier this week I got the chance briefly chat with him about his Japanese remake of Clint Eastwood's masterpiece. Whilst I appreciated his beautifully shot meaningful tale of an ageing Samurai in hiding that that builds to a climactic blood-letting. There is an air of symmetry with my meeting with Lee Sang-il as with the real beauty and weight of Unforgiven, it is much deeper than we see on the screen and, as with my review of the film I felt I barely scratched the surface of the man.
Initially I was surprised at how young Sang-il looked (a very youthful 40), the proficiency in bringing Unforgiven to the screen so eloquently speaks of a man that has competency and sensibilities more akin to experienced wise old men. But his age does explains how it is his films (at least the two I have seen) are very in touch with modern day issues.
Whilst the bulk of the conversation was around Martial Arts and chambara he was seemingly cautious of being categorised as a "Samurai action" Director and was clearly in the versatile director interested in stories of people and drama camp. Ken Loach is a favourite of his. Which is not too surprising because as much as Unforgiven is hinged around violence and swordsmanship it is more a weighty period drama than action flick, very much in the tradition of the great samurai tales of Japanese cinema. Sang-il has written 6 of the 7 feature films he has directed, with the last Hula Girls and Villain winning both critical acclaim and a slew of awards, which no doubt Unforgiven will go onto.
|Unforgiven - Yurusarezaru mono
More than ten years have passed. Jubei has fathered children with an Ainu woman and lives in a secluded hamlet, barely eking out a living. His wife succeeded in transforming him from a man who kills, but she dies, leaving him to a quiet life raising his children and tending her grave. However poverty leads Jubei to abandon his resolve to bury his sword.
David Webb Peoples, Sang-il Lee
Ken Watanabe, Jun Kunimura, Yûya Yagirs
|Unforgiven Yurusarezaru mono ZOOM|
His clear competency in person and adapting a giant like The Unforgiven to a modern audience will hopefully be matched by his personal vision that we got a hint of with Unforgiven.
FIRSTLY WHAT IS THE CORRECT PRONUNCIATION OF YURUSAREZARU MONO?
Sang-il Lee: Ye-ri-sari-zari-mono
Sang-il Lee: As my name suggests I am of Korean descent but live in Japan. After graduating from University I went to a film school (the Japan Institute of the Moving Image) set up by Shohei Imamura, a very well known Japanese Director as well regarded as Akira Kurosawa. After studying I have primarily worked in film since then.
I HAVE TO ASK DID YOU SPEAK TO CLINT EASTWOOD BEFORE UNDERTAKING UNFORGIVEN, HAS HE SEEN IT AND WHAT WERE HIS THOUGHTS?
Sang-il Lee: Of course prior to making the movie we had to get his approval, so through Warner Bros. we requested permission to remake The Unforgiven and what I got was a note from Clint Eastwood's Producer simply saying “Boss says ok!”
After he watched the film, the production team received a very brief letter from Mr. Clint Eastwood saying he really liked it and appreciated the fact that the film was full of Japanese history and the spirit of Japan.
Sang-il Lee: On the original, for me the chain reaction of violence was powerful, the violence leads to more violence. That was something very advanced for the time and as an audience you are powerless and can only watch.
I felt that kind of scenario felt very modern and timeless. So even though the film was made 20 years ago it is very relevant today. It doesn't feel like someone else's story it feels very personal. I don't think that it has closure and feel the themes still need discussion through film today.
One of the key themes which I'm referring to as advanced or modern is the concept of evil or bad, but is it really evil? That kind of thing, there is no conviction as such, people are beginning to realise that. So that's why it is as relevant today as then.
Sang-il Lee: Well Unforgiven was only born because of Villain. Remaking The Unforgiven is a very risky business, it could go so wrong, making Villain it gave me confidence to do Unforgiven.
Sang-il Lee: I did see The Unforgiven once in the cinema but I have seen it many times on DVD since.
With the popular Japanese period films, just like the Western sagas what tended to happen is that the hero, the good are rewarded and the bad are punished. That clear dichotomy between good and evil, that is something that Clint Eastwood's movie did differently and something that I wanted to inherit from the original.
A popular element given focus in many Japanese period film is that the hero rides in and gets rid of all the bad with their swords, whereas my film is different in that you feel the pain of killing somebody. That is something I was trying to convey through the film. Of course here must be action as well, people need to be excited but at the same time you have to have it some emotion, a bitter after taste has to remain.
Sang-il Lee: Clint Eastwood is very popular within the film industry in Japan so there was a real sense of excitement about taking on challenging work like this, almost like climbing a mountain.
|Ken Watanabe as Jubee kamata Unforgiven Yurusarezaru mono ZOOM|
UNFORGIVEN IS BEAUTIFULLY SHOT WHILST BEING ANCHORED BY A GRITTY FRONTIER FEEL AND I THOUGHT I NOTICED THERE SEEMED TO BE A SYMMETRY BETWEEN THE COLOUR PALLET OF YOUR SEASONAL CHANGES AND JUBEI'S INNER STATE AT VARIOUS STAGES THROUGH THE FILM. WAS THIS PART OF YOUR VISUAL STYLE OR AM I OVER THINKING IT?
Sang-il Lee: That is a fantastic analysis. Also at the time of scouting the locations I was struck by the differences before and after the snow and the impression it left.
Everything you have seen before; all the dirty things, the unpleasant things are covered by the snow as well. At the time I felt that strongly matched the themes of the movie.
WHILST I UNDERSTAND YOUR FILM MAKING AND APPRECIATION OF FILM IS MUCH BROADER I WAS WONDERING IF YOU HAVE FAVOURITE CHAMBARA (SAMURAI) FILMS?
Sang-il Lee: All the films of Akira Kurosawa; mmhh Seven Samurai and the Sanjuro film – Yoyimbo.
Sang-il Lee: In terms of Japanese Directors; Akira Kurosawa, Shohei Imamura. I also enjoy the films of Martin Scorsese and from Britain Ken Loach.
ASIDE FROM UNFORGIVEN CAN YOU TELL US ANOTHER RECENT JAPANESE FILM THAT YOU HAVE ENJOYED IN THE LAST YEAR?
Sang-il Lee: I haven't really seen much Japanese cinema recently, it's not Japanese but Zero Gravity (Gravity) was very good.
|Ken Watanabe Jubee kamata Akira Emoto Kingo Baba Unforgiven Yurusarezaru mono ZOOM|
Sang-il Lee: [Laughing] You'll have to ask Warner Bros. Mmmh. I have some other projects lined up right now. So I would have to say no for now.
Unforgiven is in UK cinemas from today 28 February 2014
The story takes place at the dawn of the Meiji Era in 1880, set in Ezo (now Hokkaido), the northernmost island of Japan. The Tokugawa Shogunate has just collapsed, and the Ainu aborigines strive to settle the land alongside the newly established government.
The main character, Jubei Kamata, is a relic of the Tokugawa Shogunate. During the Shogunate, his name alone terrorized Kyoto as he slew countless loyalists in the name of the Shogun. After the fall of the Shogunate, he fought in a series of battles, then vanished from sight following the fierce War of Goryokaku. Despite a relentless manhunt by the new government, he disappeared into thin air.
More than ten years have passed. Jubei has fathered children with an Ainu woman and lives in a secluded hamlet, barely eking out a living. His wife succeeded in transforming him from a man who kills, but she dies, leaving him to a quiet life raising his children and tending her grave. However poverty leads Jubei to abandon his resolve to bury his sword. Once again, he finds himself ensnared in a life of violence. With his former comrade-in-arms, he confronts hypocrites who profess to represent justice.
|Ken Watanabe, Akira Emoto & Yuya Yagira Unforgiven Yurusarezaru mono ZOOM|
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The Establishing Shot: I TALK REMAKING UNFORGIVEN WITH DIRECTOR SANG-IL LEE, HIS INFLUENCES, WHAT CLINT EASTWOOD SAID ABOUT THE REMAKE, WHY IT IS THE RIGHT TIME FOR HIS FILM & THE POSSIBILITY OF A SEQUEL
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