Tuesday, July 6, 2010

The Bad Sleep Well

Every so often, I'll mention that a film's subtitles are conspicuously bad. Sometimes, the movie is bad to start with (Immortal Enemy), but it's often the case where bad subtitles are just annoying. Now, the first time I saw The Bad Sleep Well, it was a downloaded copy with awful babelfished subtitles. The movie was clearly good, but the serious tone was undermined by lines like "YOU JUMP DOWN AND DIE!" Now, having watched the classy, well done subtitles on the Criterion release - legitimately, might I add - I can honestly observe the difference a proper translation makes, and also why if a film was good, not even the worst translation in the world can hold it back.

The story was still clear, even if the details were hard to parse. Toshiro Mifune is Nishi, a secretary and son-in-law to powerful guy Iwabuchi (Masayuki Mori), vice president of the Public corporation, which has something to do with Japanese building contracts. Iwabuchi is corrupt, and powerful enough to get people to kill themselves (an element uniquely Japanese), but he made the mistake of suiciding the wrong man. As a result, Nishi's out for revenge, in a plot that's quite complicated and rewarding in equal measure, with a shocking twist ending.

That story brought me back again, for the second time, even as bad as the translation was, but I appreciated that well written dialog made things a lot clearer. It took away the constant distraction and put the focus squarely on the picture, which is great, because it's a good one. The dueling themes of corruption and loyalty play out in frequently compelling ways. The scheme isn't necessarily complicated, but it also is intricately woven in with the personal relationships between characters. Corruption is a theme, but what corruption does to people is the important part of that theme, and the focus is always on the people rather than the scheme itself.

I'm sure I've mentioned before that Akira Kurosawa makes films like a painter, and this film is no different. Hell, this is the movie that gave me that realization in the first place. Just in the way shots are framed and actors positioned can tell the story of the scene, and sometimes it does more than the necessary exposition in establishing character.

It does have a couple problems. There's a lot of exposition, which can get tiresome as it's not always strictly necessary - sometimes things are explained a bit too much for no clear reason. Kô Nishimura's turn as Shirai requires him to react in shock, which at times seems to border on the ridiculous overacting that sometimes plagues silent films. Still, that's just me picking nits, because that's what I do.

Everyone thinks of samurai epics when they think of Kurosawa, possibly because he was very good at them. However, with this, he proves just as adept with a modern setting and characters. They reach into the core problems of Japanese society - especially of the era it was made - perhaps better than the old samurai, possibly because they're more easily identifiable. The corporate shenanigans are something still relevant 50 years after the fact, and it's one of those films that will always be just a little relevant overall.

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