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Film Review: 'Living' pales when compared to original, 'Ikiru'

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Sony Pictures

Lionsgate UK's latest film, ‘Living,’ is a remake of a 70-year-old masterpiece from Japan about the impending death of a minor bureaucrat. KUNC Film Critic and CU Denver film instructor Howie Movshovitz says that taking on the original film adaptation ‘Ikiru’ is more than this new version can handle.

My first thought about Oliver Hermanus' ‘Living’ was, "they blew it."

That's an overstatement, but not by a lot. With screenwriter Kazuo Ishiguro, Hermanus has made a morose and plodding film, much like the heavy railroad locomotive slowly coming into a commuter station early in the movie.

And, unfortunately, ‘Living’ comes from one of the greatest victories over misery in the history of movies.

The movie is a remake of the 1952 ‘Ikiru’ by the Japanese master Akira Kurosawa. Both stories are about a middle-aged municipal bureaucrat who discovers he has terminal cancer but finds a way to give meaning to his life in which he's been essentially more dead than alive.

In the story, the two films are alike. Mr. Williams, played by Bill Nighy in ‘Living’, heads a small, dreary office in the public works department of London in 1953. Tall stacks of dusty files cover the tables, desks and shelves.

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Sony Pitcures
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You'd think the task is to make the stacks ever taller by never working on the forms and applications — just putting them in piles. Soon, Williams learns of his cancer, and he stays away from work.

In a lonely cafe, Williams tells a stranger that he's dying. The man takes him out for the evening so Williams can let loose. That doesn't help, but then Wiliams bumps into a young woman who's just quit her job in his office, and they go to lunch and movies, where Williams rediscovers some of the life he'd lost.

That's the gist of the two films, but in spirit and vision, they're nothing alike. While ‘Living’ feels like slowly being crushed by a steamroller, Kurosawa's ‘Ikiru’ is a vision of triumph.

On the night out, Williams sees a stripper. She's heavy and no longer young, so when Williams turns away in despair, it's an easy choice — she's an unattractive stripper. But in ‘Ikiru’, the stripper is young and lively, so when Wanatabe (the Japanese version of this character) turns away, he makes an active choice. And that's how it is with the two films.

Kurosawa is dynamic and full of possibility for this dying man; ‘Living’ is stuck in the sludge — and the stripper is not exploited.

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Sony Pictures
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It's too bad because Bill Nighy is capable of genuine complexity and depth, but he's wasted on a dead-end project. Although he has one great scene — in a pub, he gets up to sing an old Scottish ballad, "The Rowan Tree."

There was nae sic a bonny tree

In a' the countryside

On thy fair stem where many names,

Which now nae mair I see,

But they're engraven on my heart.

Forgot they ne'er can be!
Williams’ deep feeling chases the atmosphere of the pub.

Remaking a Kurosawa film seems like a bad idea from the giddyup. Kurosawa's writing and sense of imagery are powerful, distinct, and unique to him. It's like trying to remake ‘Citizen Kane’ or repaint Picasso's ‘Guernica’. They're not products that can be replaced or improved.

It's not like doing another version of a play because a script is just part of what happens on a stage, and plays vanish when the curtain closes. But a great film is complete — story, dialogue, acting and visual imagery are fixed in place. You can project it thousands of times and it never changes.

The best remake I know is ‘His Girl Friday’ from 1940. Howard Hawks took a good film, the 1931, ‘The Front Page’, about two men at a newspaper, but Hawks made one of them a woman — which changed everything and made it a great comedy.

Kurosawa's ‘Ikiru’ is too good to just imitate, and 'Living’ even takes place at the same time in history, so it adds little to the story.

Why didn't the makers of ‘Living’ set the story in the present? Life in an anonymous bureaucracy is now certainly as demoralizing as it was in 1953, and the picture might have shown us ourselves.

Howie Movshovitz came to Colorado in 1966 as a VISTA Volunteer and never wanted to leave. After three years in VISTA, he went to graduate school at CU-Boulder and got a PhD in English, focusing on the literature of the Middle Ages. In the middle of that process, though (and he still loves that literature) he got sidetracked into movies, made three shorts, started writing film criticism and wound up teaching film at the University of Colorado-Denver. He continues to teach in UCD’s College of Arts & Media.