Written, directed and produced by acclaimed Japanese filmmaker Koji Wakamatsu in 2007, United Red Army is a fairly epic one hundred and ninety minute film that delves fairly deep into the interesting history of the militant leftist political organization of the same name that was active in Japan in the 1960s and 1970s. In order to make this film happen, Wakamatsu actually mortgaged his own home, indicating that (not surprisingly to anyone familiar with the director's politics) this was a very personal project for the man, never a director to shy away from controversy throughout his long and storied career.
After some news reel and archival footage the film begins at a simple enough student protest organized to take a stand against the rising tuition costs that are being passed down by the administration to the typically impoverished student body. From here, the protests grow in size and in scope to stand against not just tuition hikes but also the occupying American security forces and events taking place at the time not all too far away in Vietnam. The evolution of the movement begins when student protestors grow into considerably more radical leftist activists, and soon enough they've gotten organized enough to form the Red Army Faction. Of course, this doesn't happen without run-ins with cops and other authority figures, with police brutality given a good bit of focus here in the first of the film's three main sections.
Form the first half, where we're literally bombarded with so many characters and events as to be thoroughly confused and also pulled right into the events out of sheer curiosity, Wakamatsu changes things up a bit and we learn how the RAF joins with a likeminded group called the Revolutionary Left Wing to form the United Red Army. Things get increasingly strange as the group, lead by Tsuneo Mori (Go Jibiki) and Hiroko Nagata (Akie Maniki), begins to first beat up and then kill off its own members, those deemed too weak and flawed to be able to properly aid the cause. From there, not so surprisingly, things start to spiral out of control for the group and if they obviously had some great ideas and the right intentions when they started out, it soon becomes obvious that it's not going to end on the best of terms.
At over three hours in length, United Red Army can be a bit of an endurance test. It introduces a lot of characters, some consequential and some not so much, very quickly during its first segment and after that starts to narrow its focus. With that said, this is a pretty rewarding experience if you don't mind sticking with it a bit. Wakamatsu's political leanings have always had a very leftist slant but it appears at this point in his life he's able to approach that which he may have more openly embraced in his younger years with a bit less bias and a more critical eye. Those accustomed only to the prolific director's pink film output might be surprised to see him taking on some decidedly different material this time around but it's still very much in keeping with a lot of his output, at least in terms of the themes and ideas that he's trying to get across.
In terms of the visuals, this isn't the glossiest of pictures. It was shot on digital video and at times can be pretty flat looking. The film uses a lot of archival clips at times, which can be in fairly rough shape, and will also try to mix the newly shot footage with that older material. More often than not this works well - this doesn't need to be a flashy looking film to be an effective one. Given Wakamatsu' involvement in leftist political groups during his younger days, it's not really surprising that he's able to approach it with the very down to earth and matter of fact approach that he uses here, nor is it surprising that he makes it work.
In terms of the performances, the actors and actresses are all very obviously committed to their roles here. There are some scenes that require some pretty intense work and those involved in those scenes deliver. It's also interesting to note that the human element of the film matches the visual element as well - don't expect to see any sporting any makeup or fancy hairstyles or fashions here. Wakamatsu has obviously had his cast dress down to more accurately look the part which, again, adds some authenticity to his minimalist approach to the visual side of this movie. Ultimately this is a pretty grim picture, one that'll require a fairly serious commitment from the viewer not just because of its length but because of its downbeat subject matter, but so too is it a fascinating study of how those with the best of intentions can quickly lose sight of things. Party study in the dark side of human nature and part socio-political document of an interesting revolutionary movement, Wakamatsu's United Red Army is a challenging but very worthwhile film.
United Red Army arrives on DVD from Lorber in a 1.78.1 anamorphic widescreen transfer that presents the film in its original aspect ratio. As Wakamatsu shot this three hour plus film on digital video it doesn't have a very film like appearance (obviously) and sometimes appears pretty soft but overall the transfer is fine even if there are some compression artifacts present in the darker spots on screen.
The only audio option on the DVD is a Japanese language Dolby Digital 2.0 Stereo mix that comes with forced English subtitles in white text. The clarity of the mix is fine, there are no problems with harsh level fluctuations and things sound properly balanced here. The dialogue is clear and distinct and the track is clean with no audible hiss or distortion present. The score by Sonic Youth and Merzbow alumni Jim O'Rourke also sounds quite good.
The disc contains static menus and chapter stops and two promos for unrelated Lorber properties but no extras that pertain to the feature itself - which is disappointing. Even if the film does a good job at explaining the real history behind these events and characters, some more background information and some input from Wakamatsu would have been very welcome.
Certainly not a picture for all tastes, United Red Army is nevertheless a fascinating, if occasionally grueling, movie from a talented director with an obvious interest and experience with the picture's controversial subject matter. It's well acted and well put together and if at times it can be slow or even confusing, those who stick with it will ultimately appreciate it for the intelligent and well made movie that it is. Lorber's DVD doesn't offer up much in the way of extras, but that's really the only flaw here. Recommended.
Ian lives in NYC with his wife where he writes for DVD Talk, runs Rock! Shock! Pop!. He likes NYC a lot, even if it is expensive and loud.