Venice 2014: 'Fires on the Plain' review

★★★★☆
A tubercular nightmare vision of war in all its bloody ferocity, Tetsuo (1989) director Shin'ya Tsukamoto's Fires on the Plain (2014) stormed into competition at Venice with a loud and frankly mad rush to seize its objective, regardless of the cost. Shot through with the same élan that saw steam punk body horror Tetsuo grind itself a cult niche, Tsukamoto adapts Shohei Ooka's novel Nobi - already filmed in 1959 by Kon Ichikawa - into a fever dream of defeat, cannibalism and madness. The war is going badly for Japan and Private Tamura (Tsukamoto himself) is with his ragged unit in the jungles of the Philippines, sick with TB and unable to be of much use to anyone as the Imperial Japanese Army prepare to retreat.

Ordered into hospital, Tamura isn't wanted there - not being properly wounded. Shunted from one place to another, temperatures rise to the point that Tamura's bloody sputum sizzles on the rocks where he spits it. The enemy are approaching like some mythical monster dealing a death that will rip bodies apart from the skies. All cohesion and discipline is breaking down as panic and madness grip the remnants of the army. Isolated from his unit and ever closer to death, Tamura is pushed to the extreme, stripped of everything that makes him human and wandering the jungle looking for escape. Despite the horror of its subject matter, Tsukamoto's film is in some ways extraordinarily beautiful. The jungle burns with an almost phosphorescent green, reminiscent of John Boorman's Hell in the Pacific (1968).

Terrence Malick's The Thin Red Line (1998) might seem an unlikely comparison, but in some ways Fires on the Plain feels almost like a corrective, eschewing philosophical detachment in order to investigate the same red in tooth and claw themes of the natural world and man's bloody place in it. In fact, even the blood that sprays from wounds is a startling ruby red. Tsukamoto, who also acts as his own cinematographer, keeps his camera focused tightly on Tamura, giving us subjectivity throughout. There are sudden jumps (almost like blinks) as reality jars, uncomfortably extreme close-ups and a hyperreal immediacy. This is the vividness of someone living through their last moments in an environment of unbearable danger. Colours are brighter, details leap out and noises are louder and confusion reigns. The retreat he participates in at one point requires the taking of an enemy position on the hill. The soldiers creep forward in the darkness and are almost there when a searing light pours on them (pictured above).

The resulting massacre is as terrifying and accomplished as anything Steven Spielberg showed us in the Oscar-winning Saving Private Ryan (1998). The physical destruction wreaked on the body is explicit. But beyond the conventional violence of warfare, the film also hits a Conradian 'heart of darkness' as Tamura falls in with two other survivors, who are battling starvation by feeding on forbidden flesh. Can Tamura survive? Should he survive? And if he does, what will be left of him? Tsukamoto's Fires on the Plain is an important and vital work on routed Imperial Japanese Army, a million miles away from the sedate framing of a HBO mini-series. It's a film that renders the violence, terror and madness of armed conflict so palpable as to make for terrifying, yet exhilarating viewing.

The 71st Venice Film Festival takes place from 27 August to 6 September 2014. For more coverage, follow this link.

John Bleasdale

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