TFT Movie Review: ‘United Red Army’ and ’13 Assasins’
When I pitched the powers that be here at The Faster Times on two Japanese films currently playing at the IFC Center in New York, it never occurred to me to pair them together into one column, or that there’d be anything similar about them in any way. One is a political documentary-style movie that details the formation and fairly rapid deterioration of a late-60s anti-capitalist, armed revolutionary group, and the other is a samurai movie set in the mid-1800s. But only a few minutes into the latter, I realized that they have a great deal in common, and that having seen them in close succession, especially considering the state of international affairs, it’s entirely fair to discuss them in relation to each other.
First is United Red Army, a film that was made in 2007 but is only now being released here. Without considering how good or bad the film is, I imagine a lot of potential distributors noted the running time (a hair over three hours), along with the fact that it portrays events that not many Americans know anything about, and passed on the opportunity. But in recent years a number of very good films about violent revolutionaries have appeared, and many of them (Soderberg’s Che, The Baader Meinhof Complex, Carlos) have done very well at the box office, relatively speaking of course. And so it’s United Red Army’s turn to try to strike that nerve here in the U.S.
The first forty minutes of the film are a blend of documentary footage and quick-paced story telling, all done to give viewers a primer on how the United Red Army came into existence after years of largely ineffectual attempts to make the leap from student protests to actual cultural revolution.
Like elsewhere in the world, most of the students who turned up at the series of protests eventually got back to studying, finished their degrees, and moved into the workforce, so the revolutionary spirit seemed to be dying. But two militant, pro-communist groups (the RAF and RLF) refused to give up the struggle, and after some contentious meetings they decided to join together as the United Red Army. However, since no one had any real combat experience, they needed to be trained, and thus they retreat far into the mountains to learn marksmanship, bomb building, and the theories of guerrilla warfare.
Nothing too remarkable so far. But while in these secluded huts, the fierce leaders of the group evoke an idea that quickly becomes the focus of all of their actions: the notion of “self-critique”. According to the ruling group, every revolutionary must look at him or herself and objectively identify mistakes, shortcomings, and ways that they are or have been failing to become thoroughly dedicated communists prepared for “all-out war.” And when the members fail, in the leaders’ eyes, to properly self-critique, the leaders attempt to, um, help them. Which translates to berating them, beating them, and tying them up. And worse…it’s gruesome, sure, but beyond that it’s utterly ineffective. This goes on for about an hour and a half, at which point you will have heard (or rather read in the subtitles) the word “self-critique” roughly a few hundred times.
The film ends with another prolonged struggle, this one with the police when a handful of members take an innkeeper hostage and square off against the police
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