Film: Yamada - Way of the Samurai
UK Release Date: 30th January 2012
Director: Nopporn Watin
Starring: Seigi Ozeki, Kanokkorn Jaicheun, Sorapong Chatree, Winai Kraibutr
Genre: Martial Arts
Reviewer: Adam Wing
Set in the ancient Kingdom of Ayothaya, Yamada: Way of the Samurai is based on an incredible true story (mixed with a generous supply of creative freedom), which brings to life the adventures of Yamada Nagamasa (Seigi Ozeki). For those of you that don’t know, Yamada is a Japanese Samurai warrior who gave up his homeland to protect the sovereignty of the Thai people. Or so it says here. He also became the governor of Nakhon Si Thammarat province in South Thailand, but seriously, he asked me not to mention that part.
Betrayed and left for dead by treacherous Japanese forces, he makes a home for himself in a remote Thai village and masters the art of Muay Boran (Thai boxing). Fearless, emotionless and without genuine acting ability, Yamada takes on the role of royal bodyguard to King Naresuan The Great (Winai Kraibutr). His greatest challenge, besides emotional range, comes on the day that he’s forced to fight back against the elite Japanese warriors who left him behind. Yamada: Way of the Samurai is available in the U.K. this month courtesy of CineAsia.
The action comes thick and fast but characters don’t really emerge until 15 minutes in, so like me you’ll probably feel disengaged by the lack of depth. With a tale so grand and themes so epic you would expect to taste more than a pinch of emotional charge, but Yamada provides little more than a clichéd love story and bone crunching fight sequences. Not always a bad thing I hear you cry, this being a Thai martial arts movie with obvious comparisons to Ong Bak 2, but Watin is clearly aiming for something bigger and misses the mark completely.
The musical score - bone-achingly sincere and drowning in sentiment - hints at the trouble ahead. Watin wants you to feel something, but in mistaking Cupid’s trusty bow for a Samurai sword, he hacks and slashes his way to the heartstrings instead of taking his time to set up the shot. Almost as though he’s seen one too many Michael Bay movies and missed the point entirely. Bay does mind blowing action, not deeply affecting romance. The love story at the heart of the tale is perfunctory, lacking in realism and drowning in over reaching sentiment. Of course, it doesn’t bode well when your lead actor has the emotional range of a pantomime horse. Ozeki just about convinces on the battlefield, but the scenes in which he’s required to act remain cold and lifeless. It’s interesting to point out at this point that Seigi Ozeki also works as a model.
Kratin is by far the films most appealing character. A lively young girl with an infectious smile, the mood lightens whenever she’s on screen. Love interest Champa isn’t given much to do, but Kanokkorn Jaichuen makes the most of her limited screen time. Besides, it’s amazing what a smile can do when you're a former Miss World Thailand. What Yamada lacks in conviction, brother Khaam (Thanawut Ketsaro) makes up for in blunt force efficiency. He wipes the floor with Yamada in the opening exchanges before building a bond with him on the battlefield. Still, it’s a shame that a lot of the action sequences feel staged, particularly early on. The Thai boxing training sequence in particular feels more like a promotional tool than story advancement, lacking in realism at a time the film needs it most.
Things do improve in the final act, and from here on in Yamada delivers the kind of action you were expecting from the start. Heads are severed, bones are broken and blood gushes from every gaping wound. The fighting is well choreographed and the CGI blood compensates for any lack of genuine substance. Not that CGI blood is a good thing. The computer-generated carnage is actually more distracting than the gushing heroine and less convincing than our leading man. Watin goes to town in the editing room as well, incorporating all kinds of unnecessary tweaks and doing his utmost to ruin the flow. Despite all this, the action sequences go someway to repairing the damage made early on. Raising a knee to the face of pure emotion, the final act almost makes up for the absence of characterisation and weak plotting. Ketsaro’s screen presence doesn’t hurt at all, giving the film a much-needed shot in the arm of drive and purpose.
I doubt very much Tony Jaa will be losing any sleep tonight, but for a while at least Yamada makes good on its promise of spectacular action. It takes a while to get there but in the end, nobody can accuse the film of lacking punch. Maybe that should read elbow…