"Hidden Fortress: The Last Princess" (2008) (aka "New HF") is a remake of "Hidden Fortress" (1958) (aka "Old HF"), which was directed by Akira Kurosawa (aka "AK"). I was interested in watching this movie for three reasons: (1) it stars Masami Nagasawa; (2) it stars Hiroshi Abe; and (3) it had the potential to improve upon a mediocre original. To be fair I rewatched Old HF the night before watching New HF to see if I would enjoy it more after a second viewing. Not a bad film by any means, but Old HF has a lot of flaws. Therefore, I watched New HF with quiet anticipation and it turned out to be moderately enjoyable and a general improvement over the original. Let me compare them by area.
CINEMATOGRAPHY: Old HF had solid visuals. That characteristic was probably the strongest positive of the entire film. I specifically liked the white gravel that was showcased near the beginning. New HF is generally nice to look at, but few (if any) shots leave a lasting impression. Score a point for AK on this one.
ACTING: It's obvious that Masami Nagasawa is a HUGE upgrade from Misa Uehara, whose performance in Old HF was wooden and irritating. Anyone who has seen "Touch" (2005) and "Tears for You" (2006) should recognize that Uehara isn't even close to being in Nagasawa's class. Hiroshi Abe had the most difficult task in attempting to fill Toshiro Mifune's shoes. (I personally think that Abe has greater acting range than Mifune because Abe's comedic timing is brilliant. See the "Trick" (2000) television series if you don't believe me.) However, the filmmakers make a wise choice in downplaying Abe's performance so that he never even attempts to duplicate the scenery-chewing that Mifune loved to do so much. Outside of Nagasawa and Abe, the supporting actors are merely decent.
CHARACTERS: The filmmakers knew what they were doing in New HF, because they decided to shift the focus away from the Rokurota character so that constant comparisons to Mifune would be almost entirely diffused. Instead, princess Yuki carries the film and in some ways this shift in focus shines a spotlight on the key character flaws in Old HF. Yuki was a wafer thin side character that got the scraps left over from the constant, annoying bickering between the two dimwits as well as Mifune's constant scowling. She was a whiny little wench who displayed almost no leadership qualities whatsoever, which is ironic because one completely unconvincing plot twist near the end was entirely reliant on her nonexistent charisma. In New HF princess Yuki receives a lot more development and is allowed to showcase some credible leadership qualities. She shows strength when faced with danger, she expresses humility to her people, and she contributes a brilliant plan to smuggle the gold to its intended destination. It's no surprise that two of New HFs better moments are hers. The two peasants are kinda dull, but at least you won't feel like reaching through your television and smacking them like in Old HF.
PLOT: For the opening 45 minutes, New HF mimics Old HF step by step in "remake mode" – even to the point of using lines of dialogue that are exactly the same. However, New HF shifts to "spin off" mode after that point and introduces a number of completely different plot developments. I found it fun to spot the moments where New HF takes the script of Old HF and turns it on its head. The viewer is strongly advised to rewatch Old HF before watching New HF to pick up on these changes, some of which are very amusing.
ACTION: I was expecting more action in New HF, but it has roughly the same amount as what Old HF had, which isn't much. That's a bit of a disappointment for me personally because there was plenty of opportunity in that area. One positive of New HF is that it does not have significant amounts of CGI like other modern movies. There are a few brief shots that use it, but they're few and far between.
TONE: New HF is a more serious adventure film than Old HF. There are pros and cons to this. One negative is that New HF gives off a generic, clichéd feel at times. More humor would have helped, especially with the presence of Abe. One positive is that the antagonists are less goofy and more difficult to deceive. They immediately pick up on the stand-in princess and put up more of a hassle at the border gate.
RUNTIME: Old HF was a good 30 minutes too long, like most of AK's movies. New HF carved off 20 minutes of filler, but could have clipped another 10 with no problem. I have a lot of patience when it comes to long movies, but in general we need more films with shorter runtimes. Cut the fat people.
In conclusion, New HF is a good movie that has the potential to satisfy the average viewer. It's certainly better than some recent Chinese historical epics like "Red Cliff" (2008) and "The Warlords" (2007). The more rabid fans of Old HF might want to skip it though, so if you're offended that this movie even exists then you should just walk away.
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