It's been a while since Kitano Takeshi concentrated on acting in a movie i.e. not also directing (in both Gohatto and Battle Royale, which he did not direct, he had only a small role). "Bloob and bones" gives us Kitano in top form, with award-winning calibre performance. Be warned though that this is a brutal, joyless movie, lacking even the relieving Kitano humour because he did not direct it. Watching this movie, I terribly missed the warmth in Kurosawa's movies even when they depict the same realistic, brutal world. I particularly miss Kurosawa's "Red beard".
Kitano plays Kim, as a Korean who immigrated in the early 20's, as a teenager, to Osaka, Japan. Told with voice over of his son, the story takes the audience right to Kim's old age, when he dies in bleak North Korea, in loneliness, with only his youngest son digging his grave in the snow. While the temporal scope is epic, the spatial scope is limited to almost entirely the street where Kim lives most of his life, first as a small fish cake factory owner, then a loan shark. This movie is long, repetitive, brutal, humourless, but not boring mainly because there is a big ensemble of support characters.
There is first of all his wife who came to him with a daughter from a scandalous affair. There is his brother who married his step-daughter, thus becoming his step-son-in-law. There are his own daughter and son, that we first see as kids, the latter being also the voice over narrator of the entire movie. There is the young man who turned up at his door, announcing himself to be his son from a rape. There is his daughter's husband, a wretch she married just to get out of his influence. There is a young man, an idealist "poet communist" who would have been his daughter's saviour had he not been thrown in jail when she needed him most. There is his favourite sensual mistress, who unfortunately was unable to bear him a child, and later became totally incapacitated after a brain tumour operation. There is the woman that he hired to look after the invalid who was his mistress, and became herself his mistress instead and bore some children, including a son. There are his two biggest debtors, the first killing himself and the other somehow died when he sent gangsters after them.
But in the end, this is a movie about a man that would become the object of the audiences' absolute detestation at the end of the movie. And yet it is Kitano's piece of brilliant acting that makes this man real, understandable if not forgivable, rather than a loathsome caricature. Through Kitano's portrayal, we see a man who has never been taught compassion, alienated in a hostile environment, beating down (literally) anything that is in his way a man surviving on his natural, animal instincts. And yet, in these raw instincts we do see a small glimpse of kindness in the way he cares for the invalid who was once his favourite sex object. Don't expect to see tenderness because this man is not capable of any, but remember that this woman has failed him in a worst way, in not being able to produce any offspring. She could have incurred his brutal wrath but in the scene when he bathed her (she looked ghastly and couldn't even talk, coming back from the brain surgery), we see the closest to tenderness that this man is capable of.
This is not an easy movie to watch but should not be missed by those who have enjoyed Kitano's acting all these years. Stay through the end credit. You may not be able to read Japanese but in complete contrast to the hellish mood of the movie, the piece of string orchestration during the end credit is heavenly.