Both follow standard plots. 2010’s 13 Assassins, directed by Takashi Miike (an extraordinarily prolific director known in the US primarily for his shocking, brutal, and brilliant Audition), is a remake of the 1963 film of the same name, and also has echoes of Seven Samurai and its American counterpart, The Magnificent Seven. In a nutshell, the year is 1884, the age of the samurai is almost over, and some of the last, great warriors of the era are called upon to assassinate a sadistic lord before he can rise to national power and threaten the peace of the country.
It’s a suicide mission, and the movie culminates in a final showdown between the 13 chosen to carry out the job (12 samurai and one man who is, interestingly enough, just possibly a demon) and the 200 warriors who live to protect the assassins’ target.
Well, it’s all been done before – the standard “small band against incredible odds” film we’ve seen over and over in movies ranging from 300, Saving Private Ryan, and Star Wars, to True Grit, Kill Bill, and Tombstone.
But it, like many of the movies listed above, still works. 13 Assassins is incredibly satisfying. The villain is so evil, his actions so heinous, you want to see him taken out (painfully) literally two minutes into the movie. The leading samurai are well-characterized and charismatic, due to both fine acting and good writing. The screenplay is an excellent blend of characterization, plot, action, and mood. And the directing (especially with regards to the 35-minute battle at the end) is masterful.
Then there’s the 2008 Chinese film Ip Man, (very) loosely based on a ten-year period in the life of the Wing Chun master who, later in life, mentored Bruce Lee and helped spread Wing Chun martial arts across the globe. It’s a standard biopic, and of course virtually all biopics follow the same general plot arc: subject starts with very little, subject builds a good life for himself based on charisma and talent, subject reaches (or almost reaches) the top, subject suffers a devastating setback (or series of them), subject defies the odds to find redemption and validation – inspiring others in the process.
End of movie.
Think Cinderella Man, Sea Biscuit, Rocky, Walk the Line, Ray, Ali, The King’s Speech, etc., etc…
But again, it works here. Ip Man possesses the clichéd arc, clichéd characterization, clichéd motives, and every other cliché in the book – but it, like 13 Assassins, is oddly satisfying.
The answer is in the artistry.
In 1839, Edgar Allan Poe published “The Fall of the House of Usher” in Burton’s Gentleman’s Magazine. At that point in the game, the “Gothic” story had more or less already worn out its welcome, or at least become so commonplace that it was widely parodied and considered somewhat passé. Wapole’s The Castle of Otranto had been published 75 years earlier, Matthew Gregory Lewis’s The Monk had been shocking readers for over four decades, and even the Romantic poets and their dabbling in the genre had come and gone by the time Poe published “…Usher.”
But we’ve all read “The Fall of the House of Usher,” while very few of us have even heard of The Castle of Otranto or The Monk, let alone the hundreds of other stories, novels, and poems that comprised the Gothic genre before its appearance. Poe’s story breathed new life into a fading field, and helped (along with the works of the Brontes, Charles Dickens, and Elizabeth Gaskell, among a few other standouts) rejuvenate the genre to such a degree that it remains a powerful literary form today…Think Faulkner’s “A Rose for Emily,” much of Flannery O’Connor, all of H.P. Lovecraft, and a healthy dose of Stephen King.
Because Poe could take a standard, tired form and do not only what everyone else before him had done with it – but do it just as well as the best of them, and often better. In “Usher…” he employed parallelism in an ingenious way. He introduced not only characters, but a narrator of questionable sanity. And he described everything in a lush, baroque fashion that even Hawthorne couldn’t match.
In short, he one-upped his predecessors and contemporaries in just 20 short pages.
The magic isn’t just in the tale, but in the telling.
Imagine 2001: A Space Odyssey directed by Michael Bay, or The Road written by Nicholas Sparks.
Imagine The Great Gatsby – on the surface just a 1920s soap opera — written by anyone other than F. Scott Fitzgerald. It’s not possible, and this is why the book remains The Great American Novel yet simply can’t be filmed effectively, as the four existing attempts aptly demonstrate (I have faint hope for the forthcoming Baz Luhrman adaptation, but it’s very faint).
So to come back to 13 Assassins and Ip Man:
Both work because their plots, though standard, are so exquisitely rendered through various areas of artistry that they remind us why the genres became popular in the first place. In that regard, the formulas regain their effectiveness…the clichés become welcome…and the audience’s groans become gasps (Paranormal Activity, anyone?).
Thus, what is old truly can become new again.
When it comes to storytelling, this is something that all players, in all mediums, would do well to recognize and remember.