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Unforgiven, a film by Lee Sang-il

    By Mark Brians. April 29, 2014 - 11:12 am


It was a few weeks ago during that run of days where it got down to something ridiculous like 60 degrees. The winds were hammering down on me as I came out from the cover of the old warehouse depot, peddling my rusted mountain bike along Iwilei toward the old Dole Cannery complex.

It was the Spring 2014 Hawaii International Film Festival and I was here to see Lee Sang-il’s “Unforgiven” (2013), a remake of the Clint Eastwood classic Western of the same name.

My friend and I got the last two tickets and headed inside where the chill was hushed in the warm embraces of soft, over-buttered popcorn and the familiar hum of folks grumbling in line for the bathroom.

The theater was packed. We located the remaining two seats between two pairs of older Japanese couples who hissed at the two sweaty haole boys who stumbled over their laps as the credits finished with that crackling pop of the reels being switched.

The film takes place during the early Meiji period when the imperial forces were consolidating control after the defeat of the shogun.

On the frontier in Hokkaido, the resident civil magistrate Ichizo Oishi (Koichi Sato) maintains power by brutally punishing residual samurai, exterminating “backward” Ainu peoples, and meting out a peculiar justice governed by his own caprice.

When a prostitute (Shiori Kutsuna) is brutalized by a former samurai, Oishi, malcontent in his new position in civil society, does little about it. This abuse of power incites the “sisters” of the brothel to put a bounty on the head of the former samurai.

The bounty attracts the attention of the swindling former samurai Kingo (Akira Emoto), who ropes in his former comrade, Jubei “The Killer” (Ken Watanabe) to help him bring home the prize.

Jubei, a widower, wrestles with the unbearable weight of the deaths he has caused, yoked with the earnest desire to be forgiven and set free to take care of his children.

At first Jubei refuses the offer of a portion in the bounty. After some thought, however, he decides, in the interest of his children, that he must take the offer in order to care for them.

Along the way they are joined by an Ainu man named Goro (Yuya Yagira) who wants as much a part of the profits as to exact justice on behalf of his people.

Arriving in town, however, they are confronted by Ichizo and his regiment. Disarmed and debased, they retreat and reevaluate their motives for coming, as well as come to grips with the ephemerality of human life.

It seems as if the party will disband and go their separate ways until a final blow of abuse and injustice on the part of Ichizo unleashes “The Killer” once more.

So far, I have not given any more away than you would learn from merely watching the trailer.

Now, without giving away too much more, I would life to comment on a central motif of the film, which is the juxtaposition of blood against the crisp, clean whiteness of snow.

Again and again throughout the film blood is shed upon snow, and though it stains the surface for a moment, fresh snowfall and the melt of spring, render the spot once marred by carnage, full of the promise of new life.

Don’t get me wrong; “Unforgiven” is a brutal film. Lee does not shy away from the artistic depiction of human brutality and injustice.

And yet, what Lee does well is show brutality for what it is: impermanent, alien, and vaporous. Blood, though thick, red and black when it dries, can be washed by water.

Our last sequence is Jubei trudging through drifts of snow, which comes up past his knees, while a snow storm grows in intensity.

All the while the picture gets brighter and the image of Jubei’s face gets closer and closer. Whether he is at this point dead or alive, in heaven or hell, we do not know.

But what we come to feel is that in some way, through this washing, through this battering of the soul by water and by ice, forgiveness is the deepest form of justice.