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(Welcome to Cannes Check, your annual guide through the 20 films in Competition at next month's Cannes Film Festival, which kicks off on May 15. Taking on a different selection every day, we'll be examining what they're about, who's involved and what their chances are of snagging an award from Steven Spielberg's jury. We're going through the list by director and in alphabetical order -- next up, Takashi Miike with "Shield of Straw.")
The director: Takashi Miike (Japanese, 52 years old). Two Japanese filmmakers have found their way into Competition this year -- but if Hirokazu Kore-eda is, as discussed yesterday, something of a classicist, Takashi Miike is defiantly new-school. If, of course, Miike belongs to a school at all. Eccentric, stylistically restless and bewilderingly prolific, the man has directed over 50 feature films (not counting assorted TV and direct-to-video projects) in the last 20 years, hopping from samurai swashbuckler to clinical J-horror to postmodern musical. Though he has amassed a keen cult following in the East and West alike -- largely via DVD -- while the top-tier festivals have been slower to demonstrate their approval. Born into a working-class Osaka family, Miike graduated from the Yokohama Vocational School of Broadcast and Film under the mentorship of two-time Palme d'Or winner Shohei Imamura. After several years of small-screen work, he directed his first theatrical feature, "Shinjuku Triad Society," in 1995, and crossed over internationally with his influential 1999 horror film "Audition." Notable films since since then include "Ichi the Killer" and "13 Assassins," though his reputation -- at least among those who can keep up with his work rate -- is inevitably on the hit-and-miss side.
The talent: Leading actor Tatsuya Fujiwara, now 30, is best known for his teenage performance in the 2000 cult item "Battle Royale." Female co-star Nanako Matsushima was the lead in Hideo Nakata's original "Ring" film; co-lead Takao Osawa ("All About Lily Cho-Chou") may less easily identifiable to non-Japanese audiences. Low-profile screenwriter Tamio Hayashi is new to the Miike fold, though below the line, the film is stocked with the director's regular collaborators, including cinematographer Nobuyasu Kita, editor Kenji Yamashita and composer Koji Endo.
The pitch: One year after bringing his curious fusion of high-school musical, romantic comedy and gangster kickaround, "For Love's Sake," to Cannes, Miike returns with a more straightforward genre piece. Well, "straightforward" is a relative term here: part police thriller, part road movie, the film centers on a convicted child killer who is targeted as the prime suspect when a billionaire businessman's young granddaughter is murdered. When the mogul publicly places a price on the man's head, triggering a public manhunt, the accused turns himself in to the police -- who then face the challenge of transporting him 750 miles to Tokyo with numerous members of the public out to kill him. As if you hadn't guessed already, the trailer promises ample action and cheerfully grisly bloodshed in one of the Competition's less highbrow entries.
The pedigree: Among genre fetishists, Miike was a cultish auteur brand well before the A-list festivals welcomed him into their club. Venice was the first European major to place him in Competition: first in 2007, with "Sukiyaki Western Django" and then in 2010 with samurai actioner "13 Assassins," which became one of his biggest crossover successes to date. With the groundwork having been laid on the Lido, and perhaps directly prompted by the warm reception given to "Assassins," Cannes admitted him into Competition the very next year with his follow-up, "Hara-Kiri: Death of a Samurai." Turned out Cannes drew the short straw with this less popular (and arguably less accomplished) samurai flick, though it does have a notable claim to fame: it was the first 3D film to contend for the Palme d'Or. The festival further fostered its friendship with the director by premiering "For Love's Sake" out of competition last year. Still, even with his second Competition berth in three years, Miike retains a degree of outsider status.
The buzz: Miike's turnover is too high for any of his films to gain much buzz ahead of their unveiling -- there's little way of telling whether "Shield of Straw" is another in his long line of potboilers or something a little more special until we actually see it. That said, critics in Japan, where the film has been on release for two weeks, haven't been overly complimentary.
The odds: Pretty much a rank outsider, however the film turns out. On the rare occasions that festival juries do plump for out-and-out genre fare, it's for a film that feels more obviously like a departure -- or indeed an arrival -- for its director. (Case in point: "Drive.") All signs on "Shield of Straw" point to Miike simply doing his thing, and even if he's doing it well, that's unlikely to dazzle Steven Spielberg and his fellow jurors. ("13 Assassins," for example, was a surprise critical hit at Venice, but still left the festival empty-handed.) Cannes betting expert Neil Young agrees, offering odds of 100-1 on Miike taking the Palme.
The premiere date: Monday, May 20.
In the next edition of Cannes Check, we'll be sizing up one of several French entries in this year's Competition lineup: François Ozon's "Young and Beautiful."
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