Kult of Athena


Saturday, October 15, 2011

East vs. West: Cinematic Showdown

I am one of the people who never considered any of Netflix's recent changes to be anything more than a tiny blip on the radar.

Prices. Quickster. Stock plunges. Blockbuster's last-gasp (albeit valiant) attempt at collaboration with another aging dinosaur, the Dish Network. None of these things have made me miss an opportunity to take advantage of Netflix's savvy recommendations when it comes to the sword-swinging films that I love.

But, in indulging in these screenings, I have noticed a significant change in the geographical origin of my predominately Western/Anglicized stock: Asia.

It would seem that more and more "period epics" are coming from oversees and providing an incredible story line with plenty of action. Not be ethnocentric, but where and when did Asia get all of these amazing ideas and the cinematic clout to make it happen? Could it be their 6000 years of rich history? Yes, I'll give them that. Could it be the legacy of legendary filmmaker of all things Samurai, Akira Kurosawa? Perhaps. But while his Samurai films were groundbreaking, he never had the scope (nor the tools) to do what is being done today.

No, I think it began with main stream martial arts films such as Crouching Tiger and House of Flying Daggers.

They grabbed US movie-goers and shook them until they were like, "Huh? Asia? Whoa!"

Now, the movies earned my undivided attention were films called "Geomon" and "13 Assassins." These no doubt translated titles don't lend too much to the rich plot of the story, and may seem a little campy, but, while they cant rival the tantalizing titles of "Gladiator" and "Braveheart," their stories, scenery, and weapons (especially) more than stack up.


Two ninja, both alike in deadly skill and cunning. One is the ward of one of Japan's greatest Shoguns, Oda Nobunaga. The other, the charge of his greatest general and Samurai, Hatori, Devil, Hanzo (stop thinking Kill Bill). One sword must become two. Two empires must become one. Interested yet? I won't give it away, suffice to say that your patience and the straining of your eyes to handle the all encompassing CGI cinematography will be rewarded, as the battle scenes are non-stop ninja badassery from the East, mixed with small bits of weapons and armor from the West, from start to finish.


Horror master Takashi Miike (think Audition) brings to devastating life the very splintering of the Samurai psyche. Torn between service to the empire and doing what he knows to best for its people, an aging Samurai and his "Magnificent Seven-style" band embark on what they know will be a suicide mission to rid the world of an evil (and I mean truly evil) lord.

As you would expect from any Samurai film, there is just a ton of this:

But, what sets this movie apart from other ridiculous hack and slash martial arts films are moments like "The Lane of Blades," a scene which includes a Samurai who fights in the deadly dual-wielding style of one Miyamoto Musashi (the father of all Samurai and the Book of Five Rings) to perfection, and looks an awful lot like Patrick Swayze:

Watching these two films, I become more interested in what the Asian markets are ready to offer. I look to films such as "IP MAN" and others to show me that even though stars like Jackie Chan and Jet Li have hung up their sword belts, others are ready to take up the fight and win the war for foreign imaginations (and dollars).


Still holding the belt for the greatest epics in the movie industry, and not to be outdone by their Eastern counterparts, Western cinema has put their best booted foot forward with some very impressive medieval underdogs. No, it is not that trash Robin Hood bastardization with Russel Crowe nor is it the huge budget flop-buster about a thunder god who relies more on looks and CGI than actual plot to sell the story.

The films that earn my allegiance are a sleeper that relies on gritty, hopeless, no-holds barred action with an all-star "that guy" cast, and a foreign film that begs the audience's forgiveness for Swedish subtitles with an incredible sub-plot and fantastic fight choreography.

Sword lovers, I present:

  • Ironclad
  • Arn


In the beginning, I didn't lend much credence to Ironclad's preview. Gore just for the sake of gore is never necessary in an epic. Seeing "how it really was" can be done much more tastefully than Ironclad made it seem. But, while watching this film, I started to become more involved with the characters and truly began to appreciate how much training had gone through for their roles.

Plus, the cast of characters couldn't have been more appealing, nor more delightfully inconspicuous:

Brian Cox, Uncle Argyle from Braveheart, Agamemnon from Troy, ect

Derek Jacobi, Senator from Gladiator, Vampire Overlord from Underworld, anything Shakespearean

Paul Giamatti, chubby super villain who is terrifying when he yells about Merlot

Jason Flemyng, the quintessential "that English guy" in everything

Mackenzi Crook, the skinny guy from Pirates

Vladimir Kulich, badass barbarian chieftain in the 13th Warrior

Combine well-trained actors, new and interesting medieval weaponry and fighting styles

and sound tactics about how to take an ancient keep (bombarding it with flaming boulders and digging mines to blow up the foundation), and Ironclad is surprisingly on point and definitely worth a watch.


Canal +, a French movie studio, provides some of the best cinema on the planet. I am convinced that they have a discerning staff that actually takes the time to read and appreciate a well thought out plot. Arn: The Knight Templar, a movie based on a literary work by Jan Guillou, is no exception.

Without giving away too much, as I want you to see and appreciate it (please give the subtitles a chance), I will say that Arn has everything. Love. Hate. Hope. Division. Faith. Struggle. Scenery. Dialog. Heraldry. Tactics. Weaponry. Magnificent battle.

A Swedish monk, trained in the arts of war, is forced to join the Templars. He is respected and feared among his enemies in the holy land, while at home, and his love, are threatened and pushed to the edge. He must choose between duty to his God, and love for his people.

Albion, one of the finest sword makers in the world, seems to agree with me, as they created a line of magnificent swords directly from the film.

Their care and dedication to recreating these masterworks from the film mirrors the care and effort put into the writing of the film. For fans of the sword, Arn will become your new Braveheart because it has the courage to push the boundaries of cinema and not simply consign itself to poorly-acted hack and slash dreg. It has a shining soul to it, and draws it out inch by inch with grand design and flare.

East vs. West. Both offer amazing stories but very different cinematography. Both offer incredible weaponry, action scenes, and authentic wardrobe, but take place worlds apart. But, as you view these films, take note of the common threads of struggle, perseverance, and fortitude. They are what makes a story worth your attention and something tangible that you can take with you as the credits role.


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