Updated: May 14, 2020
Directed by: #BrianLTan
Written by: #ChristinaBurlison
We’ve all heard the story of Hirō Onoda, the Japanese soldier who didn’t surrender until almost 30-years after the war had ended. What many people may not realise is that during his time as a holdout, he and his two companions (Shōichi Shimada and Kinshichi Kozuka), carried out guerrilla raids on local fishermen and police after refusing to believe Japan had surrendered. His two companions would later be killed in firefights. In fact, Onoda himself only eventually surrendered in March 1974 when his former commanding officer flew out to formally relieve him. But why? Why would anybody refuse to stop fighting a war that had ended almost three decades prior? This is the question director Brian Tan asked himself while making Holdout, his “gritty, dark dramatisation of another soldier who didn’t surrender.”
Japanese soldier, Matsuo Ohori (Toshi Toda), refuses offers of surrender as he continues to fight on in the Philippines against local police forces. That is, at least, until he meets Sean (Mick Tolbert). A Japanese-American student in need of help, whose very being coerces Matsuo to re-evaluate his choices. But after 30-years, is it too late?
The whole movie acts as an exercise into isolation and loneliness (which seems weirdly relevant at the minute), as well as examining the futility of wartime idealism. It’s no easy task, but Christina Burlison has written a fantastic screenplay, teeming with tragic undertones, which director Brian Tan beautifully puts to screen. The characters and their situations are also brilliantly realised, and all performances here are solid. But it’s Toshi Toda’s interpretation of a man suffering from PTSD and on the brink of psychosis that deserves much of the acclaim here.
Holdout also benefits from Cedric Fujita’s outstanding work on production design: props and uniforms are exceptional, and the movie profits greatly by being shot-on-location. In Hawaii, to be precise. It adds tactility to Ohori’s environs, making his situation and his clothing and armaments look suitably battered and worn. This combined with excellent visual and audio work makes for a film which looks and sounds considerably more high budget than it probably was.
The excellent writing and direction have allowed Holdout, which could quite easily have been an exaggerated mess, to evolve into something appreciably more understated and profoundly thought-provoking. All the while, Toda’s performance imparts an empathetic and tragic undercurrent to an already deeply affecting story. Indeed, there are issues here and there: some of the dialogue falls a little flat, and the added visual effects don’t look great, although they are used sparingly. Still, this is quality short filmmaking that really stays with you.