East Meets Western Review: The Warrior’s Way; The Good, The Bad, and the Weird

5 Dec

Note: Since The Warrior’s Way is currently in theaters, I’ll try to avoid spoilers. I really do recommend this movie though, you can’t ask for a better time!

One reason why you haven't heard of this movie is the way it was marketed. Does this look like a crazy surrealist Western?

Let me just say that already, The Warrior’s Way is fast approaching the list of My Favorite Movies–a list that has many entries, some changing constantly, but which I will always come back to, again and again. I was really surprised by the vitriolic comments directed at it on the IMDB user board, and I’m not really convinced we saw the same movie, or went into it with the same expectations.

Written and Directed by Sngmoo Lee,

Warrior’s Way is the story of Yang, the world’s greatest assassin and member of the Sad Flutes gang. It’s never explicitly stated where he originates from, but given that the movie  involves ninjas, you might surmise it takes place in Japan, despite the fact that Yang is played by Jang Dong Gun, a Korean actor.  When tasked to kill the last member of a rival clan, thus ending a centuries-old war, he finds he can’t–because the target is a baby. Rather than kill the baby (although there is a  a picture of him in the dictionary under the entry for ‘Murder’) he flees. The rest of the Sad Flutes come after him, including their leader, the Saddest Flute, and so he flees to America with the baby.

The movie is a mix of practical sets and green screen, which lends a charming, nostalgic feel to the precedings. After all, this is NOT a historical movie by any means, and you’ll either suspend your disbelief with the first fight scene, or you won’t, which is probably what happened with all those negative comments. I went in expecting to have fun, and I did, as well as nearly crying at the end.

In the US, Yang finds a crummy town of shanties and shacks, half-digested by the desert, and populated by rustics and–weirdly–the members of a now-defunct circus troupe. The head of the whole shebang is 8-ball, an African-American dwarf (Tony Cox, best known from his role as the larcenous Marcus in Bad Santa) who used to be the circus’s ringmaster. Accompanying him are the various freaks and clowns and bearded ladies you’d expect of a circus troupe. Towering over everything are the skeletal remains of a Ferris wheel, silhouetted against the perpetually-sunset hued sky. He also meets Lynne (Kate Bosworth), whose entire family was murdered by local psycho gangleader The Colonel (Danny Houston, at his greasy, frightening best) and who desperately attempts to train herself with knives, despite being really, really inept at it.

As with more traditional Westerns before it, Warrior’s Way depicts Yang as a sort of Man with No Name trope; he comes to the town and begins to make a place for himself and the child, taking over his dead friend’s laundry and teaching Lynne how to be a better knife-thrower. I do have to say, at first when he took over the laundry house I kind of cringed, but it was also an interesting character and story move–here’s a man who has killed hundreds and could rule this town like a tyrant-king, but instead chooses to take up almost the lowest rung on the social ladder of the town. Not because he can’t do anything else, but because he is inflicting a self-punishment by washing other people’s drawers.

Not just a pretty face, he's also socially conscious! With cute anime shirts!

There has been much criticism about the stoic, almost monosyllabic performance by Jang in the film, compared to Geoffrey Rush’s over the top town drunk, or Kate Bosworth’s rootin-tootin performance as Lynne. I think it’s just a problem of perspective — having watched a lot of Asian and specifically Korean movies, I had no trouble connecting with Yang. The man was trained from a young age to be an emotionless murder machine, so as he attempts to cultivate gentleness within himself he also learns how to express himself without, you know, killing people.

Even a slight shift of his brows is for him like writing pages and pages of long slobby poetry about his feelings. Also, it’s not like Clint Eastwood was a fount of emotion in his Westerns–he got angry. He yelled. That’s about it. Unless we’re talking about Paint Your Wagon, which we’re not. Ever.

The conflict is multilayered – there’s the immediate threat posed by The Colonel and his gang of murderous cowboys, the impending threat posed by the Sad Flutes as they pursue Yang, and the more subtle character conflicts of Yang attempting to leave his violent life behind, and Lynne avenging her family’s murder. If you’ve been watching a lot of Asian import movies in the past ten years, you’ll see a lot of familiar territory explored, but against the Western backdrop everything feels like a fresh new take.

I also wanted to say that I was happy Lynne and Yang sort of almost start a relationship–too often in movies the minority mentor winds up a sexless monk, all teachy and supporty without any exploration of more complex feelings that would develop in such a relationship.

So the long and short of it is see the movie, it’s worth it. At the least, it’s definitely worth a rent on a Saturday night, best viewed with friends.

Warrior’s Way is in theaters right now. GO! GO SEE IT!

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