I’m going into each film here at the festival knowing as little in advance as I can possibly manage. I’m not even reading the official catalog entries so I wasn’t sure what exactly to expect from prolific Japanese director Takashi Miike. My only hope was that he’d help blow off a little mid-festival langueur and he certainly did that with Shield of Straw, a brisk crime thriller that sneaks in a uniquely Japanese cultural punch. Every year, Cannes manages to work one or two nifty genre exercises in between the Important humanist tone poems and this year Miike fit in nicely.
Two excellent cops, a man and a woman of similar skill but different personalities, are assigned to escort a child murderer from Fukuoka to Tokyo. The hitch is that the man has just been let out of prison for his crimes, but DNA evidence at a new crime scene points directly at him. When the victim’s super rich industrialist grandfather offers up a billion yen reward for the suspect’s murder, just about everyone in Japan all the way up the echelons of the police force, want a piece. As attempt piles upon attempt, it becomes increasingly clear someone connected is leaking the whereabouts of the transport.
All of this is solid material for a terrific if somewhat implausible American B action picture – partner up a Dwayne Johnson with a tough female opposite and you can have my $12 – and Miike doesn’t scrimp on the genre fun, but as the movie goes along it keeps circling back to cultural notions of duty and honor as both ideas are repeatedly tested for our heroes. And Miike doesn’t offer up a pat answer as to where he himself stands on the subject. He’s challenging the audience to decide for themselves whether the rigid codes guiding his characters are for the better or the worse. Your opinion might even change as the story’s challenges mount and we learn more about who our heroes really are and what is driving them.
Miike too seems to enjoy turning the tables. At one point in the film we find out that most of the people who’ve taken the billion yen bait and made an attempt on the killer’s life were themselves swept up in the recent worldwide economic downturn. They’re betraying their basic principles at the prodding of a billionaire who has presumably profited while they’ve suffered.
Some of this probably sounds a little heavy handed, but it didn’t come off that way. Miike is having too much fun with the suspense aspects to let Shield of Straw ever get too bogged down. It’s a perfect balance of entertainment and message. The rabbit punch of an ending will leave you smiling grimly as you walk out of the theater.