DVD Review: YAMADA: WAY OF THE SAMURAI

Nopporn Watin's period martial arts flick Yamada: Samurai of Ayothaya (a.k.a. Yamada: Way of the Samurai) talks big, claiming to be based on historical events, casting Olympic athletes to pound the tar out of the bad guys and touting itself as a tribute to the friendship between the Thai and Japanese peoples over the centuries. Sadly, the end result doesn't live up to the weighty expectations these things establish - what we get is a fairly generic revenge story lacking in any real drama and dressed up in some blatant cheerleading for how awesome Thailand is (and conspicuously little for Japan, funnily enough).

The scenery is undeniably gorgeous, the fighters involved frighteningly talented and the film is certainly watchable enough. Yamada should find a receptive audience among the Friday-night-with-some-beers crowd for whom shirtless Asian guys whaling on a small army of disposable goons is all the reason they need to watch. But numerous other directors have done much better with similar material over the past few years.

Yamada (Seigi Ozeki) is a ronin serving as part of a samurai corps attached to the Thai military, ready to defend the legendary King Naresuan from the rival armies poised outside his borders. But an officer inside the Japanese community has hatched a plan to seize power by having his loyal troops wreak havoc disguised as Naresuan's enemies, and when Yamada unwittingly becomes privy to the man's plotting, our hero finds himself coughing up blood in a dark alleyway, surrounded by ninjas about to run him through.

A posse of Muay Thai fighters drawn to the noise decide to step in and help the guy dying on the floor - soundly thrashing the ninjas, they haul Yamada off to the monastery where they train and nurse him back to health. But the villain is still actively searching for him, not to mention Yamada's new friends are suspicious of his reluctance to tell anyone what's going on... and they're little more welcoming when black-clad figures start sneaking into the monastery trying to silence their guest.

There's the seeds of an interesting story here, and the real-life inspiration for the character - Japanese adventurer Yamada Nagamasa - is even more fascinating. Nagamasa rose to high office in the Thai government at the end of the 17th century, going from living in a ragtag community of traders, exiled Christian samurai and ronin fleeing the aftermath of the Battle of Sekigahara to winning military honours and ruling an entire city. He was allegedly a freebooter, with countless rumours about where he might have buried the treasure he captured from Dutch ships off Jakarta.

The film makes some minor concessions to the actual historical record, mentioning the volunteer corps where Nagamasa began his rise to fame, and the credits mention he went on to become a city governor. But it's mostly a straightforward story of a warrior everyman who gets knocked down, finds some impossibly virtuous friends to get him back on his feet and then returns to finish off the guy who put him flat on his back in the first place, and Nopporn Watin doesn't seem to know how to make that particularly interesting.

Ozeki is fairly good in the lead, speaking what sounds like reasonable Thai, and the various pro athletes backing him up come across as charismatically stoic. If the film does shill for Thailand at least it does a reasonable job - the cinematography is lush, sweat-soaked stuff, the colours wonderfully painterly. And it bears repeating many of these men are clearly very talented martial artists - the confidence and power they display in the big set pieces is frequently jaw-dropping. It's just that none of this feels particularly gripping or exciting. Nopporn's direction is stilted and uninspired, with far too much pointless speeding up the fight sequences, and he can't seem to pitch the combat in any kind of dramatic way.

One of the key plot threads is whether or not Yamada will manage to distinguish himself in the selection process for the king's new bodyguards, but this isn't some tournament where last man standing makes it through - it's the king and his retinue stroking their chins watching countless prospective candidates and picking several. A raid into enemy territory against Naresuan's foes sees plenty of flying elbows, snapped necks and blood spurting every which way, but the outcome is never remotely in doubt. The bad guys barely get the opportunity to hit back.

The script introduces what feel like promising narrative threads, but either leaves them unresolved or flat-out wastes them. The abbot tells Yamada if he can combine Thai boxing with Japanese martial prowess he'll be unbeatable, but other that a couple of desultory elbow strikes here and there Ozeki doesn't seem to follow up on this. His bond with the chief of the Muay Thai fighters is an amusing piece of bromance (nowhere near Jon Woo territory, but entertaining) yet Yamada's gift of a hand-crafted katana doesn't really amount to anything but platitudes.

And despite supposedly wanting to celebrate Thai and Japanese friendship there's an awful lot of the Japanese guy praising Thailand in saccharine monologues and very little of the reverse. It's uncomfortably reminiscent of Feng Xiaoning (Red River Valley, Purple Sunset et al) making space for Paul Kersey - his token foreigner - to start rhapsodizing about how fantastic China is for no apparent reason.

Yamada is hardly a bad film, and under the right circumstances could be pretty entertaining, but despite the talent on display other directors have done the same sort of thing far better. Herman Yau's The Woman Knight of Mirror Lake explores much the same territory - an unknown or under-appreciated historical figure, cross-cultural friendship, kick-ass martial arts - but Yau manages to evoke genuine national pride without resorting to bland, stereotypical villains, forgettable preaching and photo-montages calculated to snare Asiaphile tourists.

And though Yau's cast weren't professional athletes the choreography and the way their fighting works within the narrative were infinitely superior. If you can't get enough Muay Thai and you're not really watching for plot, direction or any such thing then Yamada: Samurai of Ayothaya could be enough for you, but otherwise it deserves a cautious recommendation at best.

THE DISC:

CineAsia's UK DVD - retitled Yamada: Way of the Samurai - available to buy now, gives the film a solid home video presentation, if not quite as loaded with extras as some of their releases have been in the past. The disc boots straight through the CineAsia logo into the main menu, a static image laid over brief clips of the various fight scenes through the film (none of these spoil anything). Menus are clear and easy to navigate, and the film has been divided into eighteen chapter stops.

Audio:

The basic 2.0 stereo track is perfectly good (5.1 is also available). The score is nothing exceptional but certainly bold, grandiose, with plenty of thundering strings and booming cinematic percussion - the audio copes fairly well, with maybe the tiniest bit of distortion or muddiness on the louder passages. FX are appropriately crunchy, with punches and kicks carrying real impact, and all the dialogue (both Japanese and Thai) is clear and legible.  Removable English subtitles are well-placed, easy to read, and largely free from any errors.

Video:

The video is good, if soft and lacking in very much fine detail. It's hard to tell what's down to the transfer and what's down to the filmmakers, as Yamada's producers clearly had some money, just not as much as they probably wanted. Several sequences, particularly night shots, suffer from very heavy grain and a distractingly poor image, almost DV quality. The later fight sequences make widespread use of CG (for blood and fatalities) and some of this looks horribly cheap, like a tacky back-projection from several decades ago.

At the same time there are few areas of obvious blocking or banding and the colour balance is very good, with heavy, oily hues preserving the lush, liquid quality to much of the cinematography. For anyone not too concerned about the picture, or lacking a giant screen, it should be serviceable at least. One caveat - when played through an HDMI to VGA connection on a PlayStation 3 there were very noticeable dark bars down the image, if anyone uses a similar setup. They did not appear on a MacBook or PC, however.

Extras:

There are only a few extras, though martial arts fans will probably find them at least of some interest - most substantial is Masters of the Ring, a forty minute documentary on Thai boxing shot at a UK gym. While clearly geared at getting CineAsia's regular audience pumped up (the film was shot specifically for this home video release), with dramatic strings and commentary all but comparing the best of the practitioners to a warrior elite, the boxers here and their trainer are professional athletes who clearly know what they're talking about (much like the movie), and their enthusiasm and admiration for the Thai greats of the sport is still engaging.

There are four deleted scenes, playable individually, presented in regular DVD definition with the same removable English subtitles as the film. All of them seem like fairly obvious cuts for pacing, tone or running time in general. The disc includes the original, as well as the UK trailer - both are fairly predictable, chopping key scenes up to look almost totally different in places. The UK trailer's voiceover is also embarrassingly literal, as if wanting to make absolutely sure casual viewers get exactly what the film is about. Eight CineAsia trailers are also included in a separate Also Available section.

As with most CineAsia releases, Bey Logan also contributes an audio commentary. Though the man certainly has his detractors, he definitely puts the effort in, talking a mile a minute and doing his level best to get the trivia started from the word go. Note this is not all fascinating facts - it's important to remember Logan practises much of what he preaches, and he does his best to contextualise much of what the fighters demonstrate both in terms of real-world, present-day techniques - such as how competitive Muay Thai is a very different beast - and in terms of how it relates to other Thai action cinema. It's surprising to hear him acknowledge Yamada was not a huge hit in Thailand.

Yamada: Samurai of Ayothaya isn't really interested in any bold, cinematic dramatisation of the life of a national hero - it's a standard revenge story with some cross-cultural flavour thrown in for the novelty value, no more, no less, riding on a famous name and a lofty mission statement. It looks good, and many of the fighters cast in it are frighteningly talented athletes whom genre fans and regular viewers should find it a pleasure to watch. But Nopporn Watin never seems like much of a director, and the script never does anything remotely exciting - this is a handsomely mounted demo reel more than a great story. If you don't mind that, and just want some action, CineAsia's DVD gives Yamada a good, solid home video release and comes recommended.
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