Cinema is capable of many acts of impudence. But Unforgiven, you could say, flirts with the unforgivable. The Korean-Japanese filmmaker Lee Sang-il says, or appears to say: “Let’s take Clint Eastwood and stick it to him.” He appears to say: “This American star, now also a filmmaker, first got famous by ripping off a Japanese classic (A Fistful of Dollars, making dollars from a spaghetti western version of Kurosawa’s Yojimbo). So let us take his masterpiece of more recent years and rip that off.”
To compound the offence, Lee has made a film so good that it almost equals its namesake, that sour, magnificent western which won the Best Picture and Best Director Oscars in 1993. Here is the same plot. The defaced brothel girl; the reward put out for the defacers’ deaths; the retired killer-for-hire coaxed to return to his skills and pursue the bounty. Then the journey – so clever, so zigzaggy, so human, so full of doubt, fear and misgiving – towards the final purgatory.
A few changes suffice to make this eastern western fresh. Gene Hackman’s ageing sadist-sheriff becomes a dandyish martinet, young and coolly flamboyant (Koichi Sato). A subtext about rival clans enriches the subplot character of the bounty trio’s youngster. And Richard Harris’s brutally humbled “English Bob” becomes a veteran Samurai fortune-hunter, punished, beaten and returned to sender like a badly damaged package.
The landscape has a scroll-painting delicacy and splendour: mountains, rivers, treelines sketched in vast, dissolving lines of infinity. Though star Ken Watanabe is not Clint Eastwood – that whispery carrier of the eternal charisma flame – he is more than good enough: a sullenly tremulous warrior of advancing age, visibly aching in each joint of his soul, woken under duress to visit redemptive violence on a world that yet again demands it.