A lot of people are going to hate Samurai Rauni, if they ever see it. On its surface - and maybe also several layers down - it’s spectacularly unwoke. This is a movie whose main character commits rape in its first five minutes, and whose entire premise is based around cultural appropriation. But by the end of the movie, it becomes clear that director Mika Rättö is smarter than merely confronting people with an unlikeable protagonist or culturally inappropriate imagery, and that Samurai Rauni is a batshit-weird work of art with a surprising amount of heart.
Taking place in an alternate, fantastical Finland that follows the rules and aesthetics of ancient Japanese culture, Samurai Rauni follows title character Rauni Reposaarelainen (Rättö himself) - an itinerant drunkard who calls himself a samurai but is basically just an asshole. So hated is Rauni, thanks to the terror he wreaks on the surrounding population, that a bounty is put on his head by a mysterious, unseen figure. The first would-be assassin fails, however, and Rauni sets out on a quest to discover who’s out to kill him - no matter how much blood he has to spill in the process.
As Rauni traverses an inscrutable Finnish-Japanese landscape, he encounters ninjas, other samurai, and more, with each successive face-off a new experiment in art direction or filmmaking style. Much of the film's entertainment value derives from whatever insane cultural mashup or piece of action choreography takes place next. The film revels in its bad taste, from its hand-painted shack locations right down to its clumsily made-up Finnish geishas. If the mashup were taken a few steps further, it’d reach an idiosyncratic aesthetic akin to early Jean-Pierre Jeunet; as is, the art direction and cinematography merely bears a (literal) Japanese paint job. It’s worn so much on the film’s (again, literal) sleeve that it dares the audience to find it offensive. Many probably will. I’m torn.
Rättö’s performance, unpleasant and coarse though it may be, is one of the few points at which the cultural appropriation really works. Rauni is a Finnish asshole to the core - he's dressed like Popeye for Christ's sake - but Rättö plays him with such a clumsy approximation of old samurai flicks that it’s clear that noble veneer is intended to be a load of bullshit. This guy is a samurai in name only, and no amount of Toshiro Mifune-esque gurning can hide his inner nastiness - or his outer drunk. Rättö gets it, selling the absurdity of his fantasy world by undercutting it with his frantically bumbling antihero.
Cultural issues aside, Samurai Rauni bursts at the seams with cinematic creativity. One fight scene takes place entirely in slow-motion, filmed at a standard 24fps, with all actors simply performing at quarter-speed, and stagehands assisting actors in pulling off gravity-defying choreography. Another features a samurai committing painstaking seppuku using a hand drill. And throughout the film can be found breathtaking, jam-packed compositions slathered in an appealing, intricate handcrafted aesthetic. It's a constantly intriguing film to look at.
Samurai Rauni’s true redemption comes right at its conclusion - well after many audiences will have written it off. Rauni’s quest for vengeance ends at a most unexpected place, the identity of his would-be murderer-by-proxy coming as a welcome surprise. After a film filled with violence and generally shitty behaviour, the climax humbles Rauni, bringing him some much-needed humanity. It's a sudden burst of heart that vindicates all the preceding nastiness; a reminder that everyone, somewhere, has someone who's just a bit disappointed in them.
Those with no patience for unlikeable protagonists will absolutely despise Samurai Rauni. But by the end, it’s clear we are meant to hate this guy. Hating the movie he’s in is a different matter, largely dependent on how one views its cinematic universe (which is certainly bold, if nothing else). Samurai Rauni’s cultural appropriation will rankle many, but its sheer confidence and chutzpah carries it through, delivering less of a love-letter to samurai cinema than an “I’m-not-worthy” pastiche. Watch this thing at a midnight screening, as I did - it’s definitely not a movie for the light of day - and it’ll fucking blow your mind.