12:00 - 24th August 2014, by David West


It is a brave filmmaker who decides to tackle a remake of a certified contemporary classic. Released in 1992, Clint Eastwood’s bleak Western Unforgiven won four Academy Awards, including Best Picture, Best Supporting Actor and Best Director. Lee Sang-il’s new film transposes the story from the American West to northern Japan in 1880. Jubei (Ken Watanabe) is a former commander who fought on the losing side of the Tokugawa Shogunate during the Meiji Restoration. Haunted by his violent past, he makes a living as a subsistence farmer with his two young children. However, when his former comrade Kingo (Akira Emoto) offers him the chance to make some money by collecting the bounty on two men who disfigured a prostitute in a small town, he decides it is his only way out of poverty. Unfortunately, the town in question is under the iron rule of the brutal Oishi (Koichi Sato), a lawman with a fondness for sadism.

Lee’s movie has a lot going for it – the stunning landscapes of Hokkaido, beautiful cinematography and impressive period design. In the lead role, grizzled veteran Watanabe is fine – but he lacks Eastwood’s gravitas. Moreover, director Lee makes an unfortunate habit of rarely showing his eyes, typically shooting his main thespian either in profile or looking down at the ground, which makes it hard to read his emotions.

Akira Emoto is excellent in the Morgan Freeman role, but Koichi Sato simply can’t fill Gene Hackman’s boots as the antagonist of the tale. Hackman’s performance in the original is masterful, making sheriff Little Bill multi-dimensional even as he exudes an aura of constant menace. Oishi is a lightweight character by comparison – and he is finally reduced to simple thuggish cruelty.

With this said, the story sticks very closely to the 1992 plotline, with the biggest change being the inclusion of a subplot about the abuse of the indigenous Ainu population at the hands of the authorities. This facet mostly serves to reinforce the notion that Jubei and Kingo are not the real villains here, despite their mission of murder in pursuit of bounty. They are joined by Goro (Yuya Yagira), a young aspiring bounty-hunter who is half-Ainu himself – but Lee doesn’t get much emotional or socio-political mileage out of this twist.

Ultimately, Unforgiven is most successful in addressing the high price of violence, which is also a central theme of Eastwood’s work. Setting the events after the Meiji Restoration is a smart choice, as it marks the slide into decline of the samurai class. Swordsmen are on the path to extinction as rifles and six-shooters replace the katana and wakizashi. The violence in the movie is largely unsanitised – it is messy and cruel, although the final showdown between Jubei and Oishi can’t equal the impact of the original’s legendary climactic slaughter.

Lee Sang-il has set himself a Herculean labour in remaking a film as iconic as Unforgiven – but this attempt is at least a beautifully shot and engaging effort.
SCORE: 3/5
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