Puppet Show, by Josh Long
A dystopian future. The evil Woodsman (Ron Perlman) commands the fear and begrudging loyalty of the locals. Guns have been internationally outlawed, so the Woodsman commands an army of thugs who fight with swords, clubs, and various styles of martial arts. Two mysterious characters come to town, the Drifter (Josh Hartnett) and the Samurai (Gackt – not kidding, this is a real person’s name). The two strangers team up to finally challenge the iron-fisted rule of the infamous Woodsman. Is it sci-fi? Is it neo-western? Is it martial arts? Yes and no – it’s Bunraku.
Written and directed by Israeli-born filmmaker Guy Moshe, Bunraku borrows its name from a style of Japanese puppetry theatre. It involves puppets controlled by puppeteers who appear on stage, fully visible, but dressed in head-to-toe black. Because the performers are always on stage and unhidden, audiences are consistently aware of the artifice of the production. As such, the genre lends itself to wild, imaginative, fancy. Bunraku the film attempts the same approach by placing its characters in a stylized, CG environment. The film achieves this theatrical, almost Brechtian style, but it doesn’t get a pass just because it’s an interesting concept.
The final result shows the work of a filmmaker who can’t focus his mise en scene; he’s got too many influences to which he wants to pay homage. It’s part Sin City, part Kill Bill, part Scott Pilgrim, part Western, part German Expressionism, part Enter the Dragon – there are too many influences to achieve a unified style, visual or otherwise. The fantastical sets are interesting, and it’s fun to see a film with production design that moves freely outside of reality. But the directing and the editing seems schizophrenic, with visual and sound devices that pop out of nowhere and are jarring, even in a film that’s so surreal to begin with. The Woodsman’s prime thugs are designated as “Killer #2, #3, #4” and so on and so forth. Every time we meet a new one, a CG tag announces his identity – but we don’t ever do anything like this with any of the film’s other characters. In one fight scene, there are inexplicable video game noises accompanying each punch and counter-punch. Why? We don’t know. Does it become a recurring effect? It sure doesn’t. You can’t decide that one scene of your movie will be a video game, for no apparent reason.
These flaws might be more forgivable if the story was more engaging. For a film that is self-admittedly more about artifice than art, there’s a whole lot of talking. There are heavy dialogue scenes that seem to drag, but don’t get us anywhere. The film never gets us as invested in the characters as it would like. We don’t get any hint at the Drifter’s motivations until the film is almost over – at that point we’ve given up on any explanation, and would rather just see the conclusion of the action that’s brought us this far.
Casting may partially be at fault; Josh Hartnett is no Clint Eastwood. He can’t project that aura of mystery that keeps audiences dying to know his backstory. Gackt fits his part better, but his real-life fame comes as a Japanese pop-star, and the subtle difference between actor and performer is visible here. Woody Harrelson plays a bartender with a mysterious past; a potentially interesting character marred by clumsy dialogue. The same is true for Perlman’s Woodman and Demi Moore’s afterthought of a character, Alexandra. The most fun performance comes from Kevin McKidd as the deliciously evil Killer #2. He has that devilishly bad sense of invincibility that makes a great movie nemesis.
The film also features narration, a feature apparently commonplace in bunraku theatre. The narration is mostly unnecessary, sometimes invasive, and occasionally ridiculous. Every now and then it betrays the uncomfortable hand of a writer without a full grasp on the English language (those who have already seen the movie may recall the “happy birthday, f***er” line – whose birthday? Who is the f***er in question? Did the director just think this sounded cool and no one ever questioned him?). The narration ostensibly means to connect the fictional world to real life issues, but doesn’t quite get there. It’s mostly in the way.
If you enjoy the aesthetic of movies like 300 and Sin City, you’ll definitely find something in the style that pleases. There’s also the influence of German expressionism on the set design and lighting, which is visually striking even if it doesn’t always fit. There are enough action sequences to keep people watching, but die-hard martial arts fans will be disappointed. Besides visuals and action (to a point), there’s not much else to keep audiences invested. The homage to bunraku theatre is meant to be the savior of an otherwise mediocre movie.