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Death By Hanging

Posted by martinteller on October 27, 2014

A young man known only as “R” (Yu Do-yun), the son of Korean immigrants, has been sentenced to death for the rape and murder of two girls.  However, he manages to survive his hanging, which only knocks him unconscious.  More than that, he wakes up with amnesia and cannot remember who he is or the crimes he committed.  The prison officials determine that he must be mentally capable before he can be punished (again).  And so it is up to the warden (Kei Satô), the education officer (Fumio Watanabe), the priest (Toshirô Ishidô), the chief of security (Masao Adachi) and the doctor (Rokko Toura) to jog R’s memory, and debate the methodology they use and the implications of what they’re doing.

Earlier this year I watched Nagisa Oshima’s Shonen and considered it the finest work I’d seen by him.  There is a new champion in town.  This film combines the satire of Luis Buñuel and the poetry of Alain Resnais to create a work that is both a somber meditation on capital punishment and a very funny black comedy.  Literally, gallows humor.  The efforts of the prison staff are often hilarious as they gleefully recreate vicious crimes in front of the stone-faced R.  As the story progresses, the events become more and more absurd, eventually plunging deeper into the realm of surrealism.  As reality slips away, R’s self-discovery becomes a form of rebirth, and in a sense he is resurrected as the voice of Korea itself.

Oshima pulls few punches… the film is more than a little didactic as it clearly lays out its point of view.  The voiceover narration for the film’s intro — done by Oshima himself — sadly laments the popular support for executions in Japan.  Sometimes his arguments are on the simplistic side, and sometimes they are obscured a little too much by the surrealism, but nonetheless his passionate views on the topic are clear.  He also righteously tackles Japanese xenophobia, and the racist attitudes towards Koreans are beautifully skewered.  And he doesn’t stop there, also taking shots at how the country let many of its war criminals off the hook.

The shots are always framed artfully and the sound design carries some extra punch to it.  The cast of flustered officials is terrific, everyone bringing a different form of comic energy.  I really loved the film’s novel premise, increasingly absurd plotting, palpable anger and thoughtful approach.  It’s a movie that would reward multiple viewings, as it takes on many different layers and philosophies (I haven’t even mentioned the discussion of the religious implications, which are fascinating).  A stunning — and funny — cry for dignity.  Rating: Great (89)


3 Responses to “Death By Hanging”

  1. Very interesting post Martin. I hadn’t heard of this one before but I’m very intrigued by it now.

  2. […] “This film combines the satire of Luis Buñuel and the poetry of Alain Resnais to create a wor… […]

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