United Red Army (Kôji Wakamatsu, 2007)
Japanese Title: Jitsuroku rengô sekigun: Asama sansô e no michi
Kôji Wakamatsu's United Red Army is a docu-drama (or if you prefer to be academic about it, jitsuroku eiga, the Japanese term for films that mix documentary and fiction elements, prevalent in the seventies, and often about the yakuza and other gangs) about the titular Japanese extremist leftist paramilitary group. In a span of more than three hours, Wakamatsu details several decades of the group's existence. While he breezes through the early history of the group during the first thirty minutes of the film, barraging his viewers with names, faces, and events too plenty and rapidly relayed to realistically remember, there remains a sense of awe as to how dedicatedly all the information has been stringed together and dramatized, all in the rhythm of Jim O'Rourke's catchy music. The prelude sets the stage for what's to happen next, a tensely intimate excursion up the Japanese Alps where the members of the army are mutated by their fundamentalist political beliefs, warped by extreme fanaticism and the lack of human encounter.
Wakamatsu is a former member of the United Red Army (where his links with the terrorist group has prevented him from entering the United States and other territories). His personal dedication to the film is reflected by the mastery and accuracy for which he tells the story. Most intriguing is how he, despite his actual experiences supporting the group and its activities, directs the film with a cool detachedness: unwilling to take any sides, persistent in portraying the events with as much objectivity as possible. The gamble pays off because United Red Army's investment in factual consistency, mixed with Wakamatsu's purposeful emotional ambivalence towards his subject matter and the multitude of characters, creates an atmosphere of alluring unsteadiness, which the film banks on to carry its audience through the three hours.
Atop the mountains, the army, torn apart by political intrigue only to be reformed with a primary objective of strengthening its membership for warfare, holes up in different makeshift bases where the members undergo rigorous training and indoctrination. Prompted probably by their self-imposed alienation from society, among other factors like psychological impulses and human imperfection, the political struggle becomes warped and twisted, with the members being forced into self-assessment, first through demanding physical exertions then through violent punishments, almost often leading to death. Fascism creeps into the group's communist principles, creating an atmosphere of unease and suffocation, which Wakamatsu paints so vividly yet with little or no emotional attachment to his subjects. Wakamatsu objective and journalistic approach relays judgment from filmmaker to the audience, creating a discomforting and challenging burden to the viewers, as humanity is further trivialized to serve the confused, irrational, and often impromptu purposes of their cause.
The film's finale, where a mountain lodge (which in reality is Wakamatsu's own house, which he used and later on demolished for the film) is seized by some desperate members of the group and is later on seized by the police, caps the cinematic madness that Wakamatsu so carefully weaves into an astounding frenzy. The hours of joyless pain and suffering culminate in a subtle revelation of the driving force of both the group's successes and excesses. As the youngest of the group starts exclaiming the most rational piece of dialogue in the film, an awareness arises that a single element brought out this irrationality and their predicament: youth.
Youth, which translates to the adventurism, gullibility, instability, cowardice, open-mindedness and strength they inherently possess, is the prime mover of the group and becomes the rousing centerpiece of Wakamatsu's effort. The film, from being a mere reiteration (although visually and emotionally stirring) of dates, characters, and events, turns into a something else: a compelling and daring commentary of the intrinsic power and the accompanying danger of the youth.