The final 30 minutes of the five-hour, two-part Japanese boxing epic Wilderness is perfectly rendered pathos, a fight and a reckoning between two men who found in each other, and in boxing, the only form of connection they’ve ever truly experienced, the only thing that has accepted and loved them, the only respite from a world that rejected and broke them. The realization dawns on them, far too late to change the outcome, that their violent, bloody conflict is dancing, is family, is a marriage, is making love, is romance and kindness and empathy, but it also holds in itself its own destruction. They are destined to be two semis barreling towards each other without brakes, meeting head-on in the middle of a valley, the sheer gravitational force preventing any other outcome. The only question left is who (if anyone) is going to survive the impact. This final half-hour is one of the most emotionally stirring and affecting pieces of filmmaking I’ve seen all year. In its despair and existential sadness, one might be tempted to call it “poetic”, but I would argue it is more novelistic (fitting, as it is an adaptation of a novel): the interiority of both men, despite sparing use of internal monologue, is displayed there for the audience to see, richly rendered and impossible to deny in its effectiveness.
However: Wilderness is not just its final half hour. It is, to its own detriment, two films, both over two hours long, that are so bloated and lacking in focus that I hesitate on whether I can recommend them at all. Its core story is rich and impeccably acted, but it is also a story that needs maybe two hours at most to tell. The other three hours are pacing-breaking and almost parody-courting soap opera-esque melodrama, full of twists and revelations and secret family members that stretched my credulity and patience to the breaking point. It has the shape and scope (and length) of an epic, but it doesn’t have the thematic consistency or complexity. A film like Satantango justifies its length through dogged devotion to its central purpose, and uses that duration to expand upon, reflect, and make real that idea. Wilderness, on the other hand, would only become more coherent and less jumbled if over half of its scenes were excised; these extra details add no depth, add no resonance. It is not long because it is slow or meditative, or because the novelistic flair of the end extends to a development of its world. It is long merely because it doesn’t seem to know what it actually wants to say (or, that it wants to say multiple movies worth of things).
Our central story follows two men. One, Shinji, is a viciously angry criminal hellbent on revenge against an errand boy who paralyzed his friend. The other, Kenji, is a timid, desperately shy barber with a stutter so pronounced he has trouble speaking at all. Both of them, for their own reasons, join a dilapidated boxing gym, run by Horiguchi, an older man half-blind from his own boxing exploits, and begin to live and breath boxing together. And there, I wish, is where the plot ended. Unfortunately, there are also real estate developers whose secretaries are other characters’ moms, there are dads who drove other dads to suicide, there’s a girlfriend whose estranged mother just happens to be dating someone else the two main characters are close to, there’s a suicide prevention group that wraps in another dad and whose leader is the husband of a woman who is later saved by Kenji… It’s just all so, so much, and so, so convoluted, convenient, and shallow. It indulges in the worst part of the modern Star Wars movies: no one can just be a person, they have to be someone’s long-lost father’s war buddy’s uncle. They all have to be coincidentally seeing each other in public, crossing the same streets and eating at the same restaurants until the only reasonable answer is that this future Tokyo has like ten people in it, and they all know each other, and they’re all related. Beyond this, the film, set in 2021, attempts political resonance, showing striking students and government austerity that is unlivable, extrapolating from modern conflicts into a dystopian background only barely removed from our current world. This, like the rest of the family subplots, is meant to add heft but only distracts, and its perfunctory feeling gives away the game. It provides the film content with no substance, and it stretches itself immensely thin, doing the film a disservice.
This is a shame, because that central story between Shinji and Kenji, their growing friendship followed by their growing animosity, is so very strong, not least because both portrayals are massively well done. Masaki Suda gives Shinji a wild, genuinely unnerving energy with breaks into kindness that feel lived in and full, and Yang Ik-june plays Kenji with a seriousness of purpose and pathetic grace that turns his character from a one-note loser into a complicated, always-growing man. It is their acting that sells the character arcs, and their presence gives the film its moments of gravitas and strength. Credit is also due to the fight scene choreography, which is chaotic enough to feel violent but clear enough for the matches to be discernible, even to a boxing know-nothing such as myself. And, again, it culminates in a fight with such majesty that I almost want to recommend it based on that scene alone.
The key word there is “almost.” I want to give this film a lot of passes because of how moving and powerful it ends, but I can’t ignore the fact that I originally wasn’t even going to watch part two and this was just going to be a review of part one. I disliked it that much. Now, I can say I’m happy that I saw it through, but I don’t know if I can tell someone else that it is worth their five hours. There’s only so much goodwill I can extend to a film that I actively disliked for over half its running time, and that I feel is confused and flawed in its pacing, storytelling, and themes. Besides, if you wanted to understand the same emotions that the ending I’ve praised so much gets at, you might be better served listening to three and a half minutes of “Unmasked!” by the Mountain Goats, which tells the story of a luchador about to retire and be unmasked, narrated by his opponent:
Crowd’s half-gone, just a few hangers-on
come to see me finally tear through the stitching at last.
And you don’t care. You look almost relieved down there,
like you’re free. Like you can breathe now.
Like they’ve sawn off your cast.
One more sleeper to see through.
And by way of honoring
the things we once both held dear,
I will reveal you.
I will reveal you.
Cast of thousands, but we were the real two.
When I’m alone before a mirror late at night,
I will reveal you.
I will reveal you.
Wilderness Part 1 and 2 is receiving its Canadian premiere at the 2018 Fantasia International Film Festival.
Directed by Yoshiyuki Kishi; written by Yoshiyuki Kishi and Takehiko Minato; starring Masaki Suda and Ik-june Yang; 304 minutes.