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Review: 'United Red Army' A Text Book Heavy Look At History

Photo of Christopher Bell By Christopher Bell | The Playlist May 27, 2011 at 2:37AM

Let's say that 100 minutes is the perfect running time for a film and something that all types of audiences can get behind without complaint. Within that standard is about 20 minutes of leniency; remove that much and things feel brisk, tack on that much and different elements are allowed to flourish which is likely to lead to a more satisfying conclusion. But why does a movie exceeding two hours feel like work just by reading the running time? Even a 130 minute movie will induce some sort of sigh -- are those extra ten minutes really pushing things over the edge?
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Let's say that 100 minutes is the perfect running time for a film and something that all types of audiences can get behind without complaint. Within that standard is about 20 minutes of leniency; remove that much and things feel brisk, tack on that much and different elements are allowed to flourish which is likely to lead to a more satisfying conclusion. But why does a movie exceeding two hours feel like work just by reading the running time? Even a 130 minute movie will induce some sort of sigh -- are those extra ten minutes really pushing things over the edge?

Still, we can't avoid long flicks or they'll haunt our cinephile to-do list forever (this writer has yet to touch any of the "Lord of the Rings" trilogy, and let's not even mention any late Peter Watkins that are severely overdue for a sit-down). A more rational and legitimate criticism of the 2+ hour epics is that many of them tend to have it down to a science, making an extended experience too predictable -- the first 40-60 minutes is set-up and whatever's left over is the meaty stuff, successfully taking off from the foundation laid before it. Does it work? Generally, yes, regardless of how boring and obvious the template is, the post-Act One material is rarely unrewarding.

But we can't forget about the ones that don't waste a single second, ones that either neglect the template or hide it well: "Casino" cracks and pops with kinetic energy from the get-go, "Che" jumps among several differently toned time periods that are never dull and always acute, "The Weeping Meadow" has Theodoros Angelopoulos sculpting in time in a devastatingly beautiful early 1900s Greece. Time spent with these masterful works is a wonderful excursion; each consistently stimulating yet completely individual in their accomplishment. All that said, the rage of a woman scorned is nothing compared to what a lengthy, horrible cinema can induce. Even an average and relatively harmless one feels interminable, losing goodwill simply because it overstayed its welcome.


"United Red Army" by stalwart Japanese filmmaker Koji Wakamatsu lives in the land of excessive features, but it doesn't follow the cliched path. Unfortunately, that's much to its own detriment -- not only does it peak 190 minutes, but almost the entire first hour is an overly expository and corpse-dry slideshow of stills, newspaper articles, text, and the occasional brief reenactment, all set to very generic rock and roll (which somehow came from the brain of experimental musician Jim O'Rourke).

The subject is this -- after the Japan-US Security Treaty in 1951, students in the Asian country heavily protested against their Communist Government and held scathing rallies in various universities. After a failed occupation of Tokyo University (which ended violently), the most radical students splintered and formed various groups (Red Army Faction and Revolutionary Left Wing among them) and decided to fight back with guerilla warfare, moving underground and eventually unifying into the United Red Army. Despite their attacks on police; the group were mostly holed in and fought amongst each other, taking most of their own lives due to their heated debates and ultimate lack of trust. In an interview promoting the film, the director explained that the history books gloss over this movement and provide a one-sided nationalistic perspective; he also states that contemporary native youth have not a clue of this group. He argues that in order to provide proper context, an extensive rundown highlighting nearly every date is necessary, starting from their student-uprising-beginnings to the union of RAF and RLF.

Fair enough, but there's more than a few problems here. The fact that a more digested rundown of events regulated to opening title cards wasn't even considered is a bit alarming. Cinema is a great tool for teaching, but few are going to listen to a lecture, no matter how brilliant, if it's presented in the dullest fashion possible. The insistence of stating nearly every event leading up to the group's final formation also leads to a barrage of facts, most of which aren't even given time to register before the next historical nugget pops onto the screen. It's much too text-book, a mess that is absolutely excruciating to sit through. It gets so bad that one thinks they should be taking notes in fear of a post-screening exam. So while the director's intentions are good, it ultimately backfires due to the number of specifics and the rate at which we are bombarded with them. It's near unbelievable that this back story couldn't have been simplified (we more or less did so above) or at least done in a more artful, less unendurable way.

But forget us and our pity party. The biggest disservice is done to the next section, which suffers greatly because of its job in convincing the audience to stick around and care. Finding a new base in the mountains, the faction trains with armed weapons and practices various terrorist activities. But crawling around in the long grass and philosophizing in a dim cabin are outweighed by tension, mistrust, and insecurity. Various members catch others in questionable yet ultimately nit-picky situations that go against the core's beliefs -- thus, they are tortured and made to repent for their mistakes in a process titled "self-criticism." The group's instability coupled with various arrests and runaways ultimately shrinks their once ardent collective into less than a handful of insanely dedicated/dedicatedly insane members. In the final chapter, only five of them survive and hole up in an inn, taking a hostage and facing a shoot-out with the police.

It's a shame that so much of this narrative is spent picking up the pieces of a disastrously insipid opening, because it's actually quite well done. The filmmaker, now 75, was successful in the pink-film niche, a subgenre comprising of weird soft-core pornography. He also worked alongside great directors such as Hiroshi Teshigahara and Nagisa Oshima, even producing the notorious "In The Realm Of The Senses" for the latter. Taking that into account, the final two chapters of "United Red Army" very much feel like they were composed by someone during that 1960s heyday, from the behavior of the actors to the bleak, seemingly aged film stock. He also keenly avoids sympathy and sentimentality, refusing to devolve the film into being a story of tragic rebels quieted by an evil government. No, he keeps us distant, displaying their original good intentions and how their activism organization morphed them into a self-destructive cult. It's a tragedy in the sense that such positive thinking deteriorated into something so different, something that orchestrated their ultimate annihilation. Wasted youth is what he's most concerned with, and keeping with that idea, brief text is laid over the screen whenever someone dies, describing their lives before the fatal incident.

By the time the final sequence in the lodge rolls around, Wakamatsu has more than regained the steering of the ship and effectively gets the most out of the last few faithful members holed up with a captive and fending off spurts of police intervention. It's amazing how well the director uses his single-setting locations; both the cabin and the inn never feel too small or claustrophobic, rather, they feel quite large and lived in -- comparisons to what Alfred Hitchcock did with his lone location in "Lifeboat" wouldn't be too far off. This talent is also helpful for the pacing, his constant inventiveness and weighty conflicts (both from within the group and outside of it) are always absorbing -- just what the Three Hour Movie Doctor ordered.

But even after proper digestion, it's hard to come to terms with that abysmal, short-sighted opening. The weakness of it does not eradicate the rather captivating following 2/3rds, but the strength of the latter does not make up for the lengthy initial misfire. By the time the credits roll, we're not talking about the substance, but of the bad first impressions given by the structure -- and that is not going to bode well when we analyze how our precious time was spent. [C]

This article is related to: Review


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