Rurouni Kenshin: Kyoto Inferno

Genre: Action, Drama

Director: Keishi Ohtomo

Writers: Kiyomi Fujii, Keishi Ohtomo, based on the original comic “Rurouni Kenshin” by Nobuhiro Watsuki

Cast: Takeru Satoh, Tatsuya Fujiwara, Emi Takei, Yusuke Iseya, Munetaka Aoki, Yu Aoi, Ryunosuke Kamiki, Tao Tsuchiya, Min Tanaka

Running Length: 139 minutes

Synopsis: Kenshin Himura (Takeru Satoh) is a legendary swordsman in the wars accompanying the turbulent fall of Japan’s Shogunate in the 19th century. Once feared as ‘Battosai the Killer’, he has adopted a peaceful life since the arrival of the ‘new age’ in Japanese history. But Makoto Shishio (Tatsuya Fujiwara), the ‘Shadow Killer’ who succeeded to Kenshin’s position in the service of the new government, has since then been active in the Kyoto underworld. Because he knew too much of the dark side of the new government, he was stabbed and his body set on fire. He survived, however and, wrapped in bandages, has raised an army of disaffected former samurai with the aim of overthrowing the new regime. Agreeing to a request by Toshimichi Okubo, the Home Minister, Kenshin leaves his friends in Tokyo and sets out for Kyoto. He and Shishio are a match in skill and in wits, but their aims are opposite. Kenshin seeks to preserve the nation without breaking his vow that he will kill no more.

Review: With Hollywood blockbusters crowding the cinemas, it’s little wonder that the jidaigeki (period drama) genre of Japanese cinema has become a shadow of its former self, and apart from the Rurouni Kenshin series itself, decent chanbara films have been few and far between. Kyoto Inferno is the follow up to the first Rurouni Kenshin film (in 2012), and perhaps more importantly, is part one of a two-part epic feature (Rurouni Kenshin: The Legend Ends opens in Singapore about a month later on 9 October). And much like other films that are cleaved into two, it’s perhaps a bit unfair to pass judgment on what essentially is half a movie and not on the entire body of work.

Yet, it’s also a necessity that each film should be able to stand on its own, and in a way Kyoto Inferno does succeed to a certain extent. Although the film is very slow going, Kyoto Inferno manages to establish the characters and their motives (it can get a little confusing, but prior knowledge of the Rurouni Kenshin series or the previous movie is not required), as well as set the stage for what would likely be a much more kinetic second film. This unevenness is one of the bigger problems of the film, because it is likely that there will be audiences that go into Kyoto Inferno expecting swordfights galore and not a weighty drama, even if it’s good drama for most of the film. Fortunately, the pace does pick up sporadically in a number of well choreographed action sequences. The action in Kyoto Inferno seems largely to be traditional stunt work, and CG has been kept to a minimum, a refreshing change from typical Hollywood fare these days.

Although no one is going to carry home award trophies for their acting in Kyoto Inferno, at least each actor bears a good resemblance to their manga/anime counterparts. Tatsuya Fujiwara does manage to impress as his turn as Shishio is appropriately menacing despite acting entirely behind a mask of bandages. Much emphasis is placed on the romance between Kenshin and Kaoru, this to me is the weakest link in the film, as the two actors share very little onscreen chemistry and the dalliance simply does not convince.

It seems to be a trend for filmmakers to split finales nowadays, and although in this case the wait is a fair bit shorter than usual, it is still a bugbear to me. Did this installment Rurouni Kenshin need to be played out over two full-length movies? The answer once again is no – there’s so much narrative excess in Kyoto Inferno that much of it could have been edited out in the first place with very little loss to the structure of the film. It remains to be seen if The Legend Ends would justify the two part treatment, but perhaps the better route would have been to release a single film cinematically then a director’s cut later on.

Rating: * * * (out of four stars)


The Hundred-Foot Journey

Genre: Drama

Director: Lasse Hallstrom

Writer: Steven Knight, based on the novel by Richard C. Morais

Cast: Helen Mirren, Om Puri, Manish Dayal, Charlotte Le Bon, Amit Shah, Farzana Dua Elahe, Dilton Mitra, Aria Pandya, Michel Blanc

Running Length: 122 minutes

Synopsis: Hassan Kadam (Manish Dayal) is a culinary ingénue with the gastronomic equivalent of perfect pitch. Displaced from their native India, the Kadam family, led by Papa (Om Puri), settles in the quaint village of Saint-Antonin-Noble-Val in the south of France. Filled with charm, it is both picturesque and elegant – the ideal place to settle down and open an Indian restaurant, the Maison Mumbai. That is, until the chilly chef proprietress of Le Saule Pleureur, a Michelin starred, classical French restaurant, Madame Mallory (Helen Mirren), gets wind of it. Her icy protests against the new Indian restaurant a hundred feet from her own, escalate to all out war between the two establishments – until Hassan’s passion for French haute cuisine and for Madame Mallory’s enchanting sous chef, Marguerite (Charlotte Le Bon), combine with his mysteriously delicious talent to weave magic between their two cultures and imbue Saint-Antonin with the flavors of life that even Madam Mallory cannot ignore.

Review: Not every movie needs to be groundbreaking to be entertaining, and this is totally embodied in The Hundred-Foot Journey, a derivative, by-the-numbers culture clash movie that somehow manages to be light and enjoyable despite being entirely predictable from start to end. Much of this is due to the eminent Helen Mirren, who manages to elevate the film to a higher level with her performance, despite a really exaggerated Gallic accent.

Although this is a movie about food, Lasse Hallstrom has actually kept “food porn” sequences to a minimum – of course there are still scenes of cooking, but he seems more intent on showing the various interactions amongst the leads. That’s not a bad thing, and other than Helen Mirren, who is flawless in every scene, the rest of the ensemble cast are all also capable performers, which means that these interactions are never uninteresting. Hallstrom and his director of photography Linus Sandgren also manage to capture the beauty of the little French village, resulting in many sun-bathed, postcard perfect shots of Saint-Antonin. This is also augmented by an excellent (though somewhat clichéd) score by A.R. Rahman, almost on par with his work on Slumdog Millionaire.

The Hundred-Foot Journey offers no surprises from beginning to end, and the culinary journey of Hassan goes exactly as one would expect. The film does feel a little spent by its third and final act, however, and although the intention was surely to tug at the heartstrings of the audience, this third act is the weakest link and least emotionally resonant in my opinion. Its inclusion also draws the film out to just a hair over two hours, which is arguably a little too long for its own good. Fortunately, there is enough goodwill built up from the preceding segments that it does not diminish the movie by too much, and this cinematic equivalent of comfort food will surely be a crowd pleaser for almost anyone willing to give it a try. If The Hundred-Foot Journey were a restaurant, it probably won’t earn any Michelin stars, but will still get a solid recommendation via word of mouth.

Rating: * * ½ (out of four stars)