Versus (2000), dir. Ryuhei Kitamura

KSS Inc.

Starring: Tak Sakaguchi, Hideo Sakaki, Chieko Misaka, Kenji Matsuda

Reviewed by Djibril

Kitamura's Versus is marketed as the ultimate fight movie. Basically this is a zombie flick with big swords and even bigger guns, set in an enchanted forest which conceals one of the gates to Hell, and drenched in more blood than a mediaeval abatoir. Including flash-backs and -forwards, the characters live or are reincarnated over a span of 600 years, and almost everyone dies at least once. The furious action never relents, and it is an astonishing feature of Kitamura's direction that this chaos never leads to confusion or boredom. It is fortunate that this is so, since this film was never going to be especially plot-driven or about sensitive character development.

After a flashback involving a messy, sharply-cut fight in a forest between a samurai, a dozen zombies, and a sorcerer, the action begins in the present day with two escaped convicts fleeing through the same forest. Things start to go wrong when the planned getaway ride turns out to be a gang of violent criminals with a female prisoner in tow, sent to hold the escapees until the arrival of their boss. Egos clash and tempers flare, but when violence breaks out everyone is shocked to see the dead rise and start attacking indiscriminately, apparently near indestructible. One convict—Sakaguchi's character, the anti-hero only ever named as "prisoner KSC2-303"—flees with the girl (Misaka), and the surviving gangsters pursue them deeper into the ominous forest.

For the remainder of the film the various groups of characters fight each other while fending off the walking dead. Sakaguchi and Misaka quarrel and occaionally fight as they in turn flee and return to the offensive; the gangsters fight among themselves and end up in three groups: the core, led by the flamboyant, dancing Matsuda, the short-lived warrior who tries to remind them all that their orders are to take the prisoner alive, and one cowardly "runt" who survives most of the film by fleeing in panic from everything. Two maverick police agents come onto the scene seeking the escapees, and bringing with them some comic relief and a gargantuan-sized rifle; a female martial artist is wandering the forest for some reason never explained; Matsuda brings in a second group of elite killers; and not least, the gangsters' boss appears, the enigmatic and seemingly immortal Sakaki, who defeats and then wins over the rebellious Matsuda's killers and then begins the hunt for Sakaguchi and Misaka in earnest. (Did I mention Misaka has the sixth sense?)

Needless to say "prisoner KSC2-303" is no random victim in this forest of the walking dead, but a convicted murderer and a reincarnation of the same samurai who fell to the sorcerer at the start of the film. In fact all of the main characters are protagonists both 500 years in the past and 99 years in the future as well as the present. (Luckily, they return as zombies when killed, so we are not denied more of Matsuda's antics just because he has had his heart torn out...) All of this is connected by destiny, and there are internal battles to be fought, consciences to be searched, and dark sides to be resisted.

I don't mean to make this sound silly; as I commented above, the action is fast-paced enough that holes in the plot and weaknesses in characterisation are easily passed over. The gore is truly stomach churning in places, and the fight scenes brilliantly executed—both those featuring an immense range of firearm hardware, and those where warriors pair off with massive samurai swords. A hugely enjoyable movie. If you have not yet caught this addition to the Asian Extreme collection, don't miss out on a treat.

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