I have wanted to do this review for a long time, but every attempt ended up feeling as if it was not the right time.
Lets put VERSUS in a certain context – Asian cinema had been thought of, to the masses, be mainly composed of action films. After the Shaw Brothers’ wuxia boom in the 60’s and all that followed because of it, Asian cinema became a market for a niche underground market. Bootleg tapes were sold at conventions, and the films lucky enough to reach American borders were films that stood out based on the most basic aspects of the production. RIKI-OH, the films of Takeshi Miike, and BLACK MASK are two examples. Meanwhile in Japan, a post-modernism was rising in the new Millenium, immediately seen in films like WILD ZERO in 1999, which the kaiju genre would soon follow. Sam Raimi had left his mark, independent filmmaking was on the rise, and filmmakers were mixing elements together. Out of this avarice came Ryuhei Kitamura’s masterful VERSUS.
Kitamura’s visionary directing (brought together by the editor) is just grand. Not even THE MATRIX, which had come out a year earlier and set a kind of bar, can touch VERSUS. Every form of combat a human can subject themselves to is represented here. Swords, knives, guns, bigger guns, hit and runs by car, all of it is here short of military warfare or giant monsters (though the epilogue of VERSUS visually reminds reviewers of such). Such violence is not shot in a gratuitous way like a Tarantino film or a Brian De Palma way. VERSUS is equally gratuitous, but it is all fantasy and all for vissal pleasure. While the writing isn’t the most complex, but Kitamura doesn’t give us eye candy, its eye protein. In the battle which is choosing composition vs. kineticism in a series of shots that make up a scene, Kitamura can eat his cake and have it too. In particular to the cut of VERSUS which I prefer – ULTIMATE VERSUS – (because the film gets a better melding together synth soundtrack with an ethereal feel), the use of color filters is great. In the using of colors to symbolize ideas or concepts, you can focus on a particular color present in the environment you are depicting or you can color the whole film, and the latter is what Kitamura went after. VERSUS ends up being a very moody film – but not moods that bog down the viewer. Moods ethereal as the music that accompanies the film. A continuous sense of awe, of something big happening, something important.
As far as the writing is concerned, one could go and say that the film makes a point of fighting being a constant in humanity’s course through time, but this is a rare case where I would rather not dig deep. To point out a theme by connecting certain scenes would take away from a particular function of said scenes. You learn about the characters by their actions. They all have a personality, and because of tribalism, their means are simple enough, with drama coming from the motivation of the means. This is expanded upon with VERSUS being a muti-generational film. Part of the film looks like its taking place during the sengoku era, part of it taking place in more recent times, and a part of the film taking place sometime in the future.
Resurrected versions of characters change motivations overtime, which makes characters stand out even more. Even deeper are the little (sometimes big) quarks in the character’s actions or clothing style. Only one character has an identifiable label (Prisoner KSC2-303). Attentive viewers who do not mind a film being out of order (or are even people clever enough to absorb a film that is out of order) will find Versus to be great.
The other great part of the film to talk about is the music. VERSUS contains a synth score. One of the best attributes to an electric score is that it can cover a greater range than an orchestra playing instruments. The score for VERSUS does something that is almost uniquely Japanese and yet rare all around. Drawing attention to the scene where the character dubbed “The Man” starts killing those who he has hired on, the music gives that ethereal feeling of almost a holy action is taking place, complete with an air of hopeless desperation. The music for the final action sequence in the film and on perfectly captures a zen kind of patience in battle, when the fight slows down and so much could be said: thinking ahead for the battle in the couple of seconds, taking a breather, a sense of awe the characters, ect. The end credits track brings it all together, that this is an eternal battle.
These three cogs working together is what makes VERSUS the war machine of a movie that it is. VERSUS, I would hope, will be talked about for a long, long time. There is too much artistry in this film which has stood the test of time, truly having excelled the genre. The film has a goofyness to it, but the film takes it seriously (maybe not the characters, but the people behind the camera take it seriously). VERSUS is quite possibly the best action film ever.