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Can you have your Revolutionary Cookie and eat it, too? And must one sit through a three-hour trek to a snow lodge to find out? Koji Wakamatsu's United Red Army is thrilling, provocative, but probably a bit too much.
Thanks to LAFF's "The Films that Got Away" sidebar, Koji Wakamatsu's 2007 three hour-plus film United Red Army received its hearty Los Angeles premiere. A massive undertaking, on the massive and massively complicated subject of the sixties/seventies Japanese radical left, specifically the ultra-left-turned-cult-cum-international-terrorist-group called the United Red Army (URA).
Wakamatsu's film captures a visual equivalent to the tumultuousness of URA's history, and despite the conventionality of the form, the film is startling for its detailed and persistent historical inquiry into the organisation's formation, its key members, its troubled life and even more violent implosion, and its key activities in Japan and around the world. The result is a charged dialogue and inside perspective on such an incredibly important and fascinating history that is perhaps not so well known or remembered.
The film can be divided roughly into three stages: one, a nearly overwhelming summation of student protest erupting roughly in 1960, and leading to the formation of the URA; two, preparation for training for armed struggle, and morphing into the ideological self-critique sessions that become Stalinist execution show trials; and three, the fragmentation of the group as members are arrested, and the shootout at a mountain inn with five URA members. The first act is expository, with voiceover, archival footage, and text dominating the visual. As the URA isolates itself in the countryside, committed to consistent ideological self-critique and realise their communist-ness at the highest and "purest" level, the fictional sequences come to dominate the subsequent acts, culminating in the shootout, shot entirely from the URA members' perspective.
The "URA members' perspective" is operative here. The more literal translation of the Japanese title is "The True Story of the United Red Army: The Way to the Ski Lodge on Asama." Wakamatsu was nearly as rigourous about and committed to the production process and on his cast/crew as URA was in its pursuit of a "pure" communist state. (Example: he used his own house to pose as the ski lodge, and both history and the film call for its destruction during the shootout. Result: house destroyed.) Wakamatsu was adamantly meticulous about getting the stories from each of the surviving members of the United Red Army -- some in the Middle East, some serving life sentences, some on death row -- in order to reconstruct the stages of URA's activities. All with good reason: Wakamatsu was a former member (a historical fact that prevents him even now from entering the U.S., Australia, and Russia). His fundamental rule of making films from the perspective of the weak finds its hardline application here.
Despite Wakamatsu's personal ties with the URA and his "insider" status, refreshingly, there is no didacticism or negative/positive judgment on what goes on, which would have made the film fall entirely flat and just plain unbearable. He presents an unflinching look at the degeneration of a highly committed activist organisation even as one feels nostalgic about the deep commitment and politicisation of young people, and maintains a momentum of interest for the most part. He does not even spare comedy at URA's expense by including the dialogue and offense of eating "anti-revolutionary" cookies. It definitely helps, too, that he laces the film with Jim O'Rourke's amazing music. Although by the time the film got to the standoff at the ski lodge, I felt rather exhausted. This film is no light fare, and proves overwhelming and excruciating for both those in the know and the uninitiated.
Wakamatsu, though, lapses pitifully into cheap sentimentalism when he drapes a mournful song during a quiet moment in the shootout. Unforgivable. He also dips ever so slightly into romanticism for having a cast of reasonably good-looking young people portraying the URA. (For a short period of time, in fact, I was fairly distracted by one actor, who at first glance could have been Takeshi Kaneshiro's brother or something. Arguably a valid dilemma -- and no, it was not Kaneshiro; it all came down to the voice.)
United Red Army represents a particularly gritty, messy, violent, and even sadistic portion of radical left movements. In this vein, with its identification of characters through freeze-frames, with titles/captions telling name, age, and what ended up happening to them (death, arrest, escape, etc.), and the overall labyrinthine network of members from various activist groups that come together to make up URA, I was somewhat reminded of Kinji Fukasaku's work, in particular his Battles without Honor and Humanity series. No wonder, I have found, as Fukasaku's work on yakuza in particular is the principal reference point for the form of jitsuroku eiga, a weaving together of documentary and fiction prevalent in the seventies, upon which United Red Army draws for its inspiration.
Date Posted: 7/3/2009