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Brutal yet beautiful: stylised violence in films

Posted on 19 September 2014 by Michelle

Violence is one of the things that the Classification Office has to consider when classifying a film, a game, or another sort of publication. There are lots of different ways violence can be depicted, and these differences can impact on both how audiences respond to the film and how the Classification Office classifies it. In an earlier post we presented some of our research findings into young people's perceptions of violent content in films. In this post, we'll have a look at depictions of 'stylised' violence in film.

Stylised violence is the sort of violence that is hyperreal, or unrealistic. The sounds and images are manipulated, and often the violence looks staged. It uses devices such as heightened colour, sound effects or unusual shots. Though it can seem less real, this doesn't mean it is less intense.

An example of this sort of stylised violence can be seen in the film Kill Bill Part 1 (2003). In the film, the imagery is largely brightly coloured but there are also some black and white sequences. Split screens are used for some scenes, and there is a lengthy cartoon section drawn in a Japanese anime style.

When classifying the film as R18 'contains graphic violence and offensive language' the Classification Office noted:

The longest fight scenes, which take place in and around the House Of Blue Leaves, involve The Bride taking on an army of yakuza men and women, and then O-Ren herself. Although these scenes are filmed conventionally with human actors, the violence in these sequences is more akin to the anime section as it is even more stylised than the rest of the feature. The Bride takes on large groups of villains at once and performs incredible physical feats. At one point the camera pulls back to show the groaning masses of wounded yakuza she has left lying on the floor.

The overriding impression of the violence in the feature is of over-the-top, unrealistic but gory fight scenes. The one-dimensional characters are frequently only introduced in order to be killed in a spectacular manner. There is an abundance of blood but very little realistic viscera, and few portrayals of characters' pain.

In the process of classifying the 2005 film Sin City (R18 'contains graphic violence') the Classification Office sought input from members of the public through a consultation. Participants were asked whether the style in which the film was shot affected the impact of the violence it depicted. Although participants generally agreed that much of the violence was stylised and not portrayed realistically, the most common view amongst participants was that the style of the film increased the impact of the violence it depicted.

In the Office's classification decision on the 2014 film Sin City: A Dame to Kill For, the impact of the stylised depiction of violence on the classification is discussed:

If shot in full colour, live action, this would accentuate the violence and make it of high impact. This is not the case however. Realism and authenticity is not the intention of the filmmakers. Being a 'graphic-novel' adaptation, a very animated film-noir style presentation is used, faithfully reproducing the look and feel of the artwork from the novel. All of this material is shown in a black and white cinematic presentation, meant to set a dark and lurid tone to the stories. Some colour is used at times to highlight certain images, particularly blood. By contrast some blood imagery is stark white, set against the dark background or in silhouette. The effect this has is to heavily reduce the realism of the material. Thus the manner of the violence reduces its impact significantly.

Whilst the sexual material and violence is high in extent, the manner and style of the film, heavily reduces its realism. Older teenagers will be astute to this lack of realism and be able to contextualise these depictions as functional to the action thriller genre.

As the above quotes from classification decisions show, the way violence is presented onscreen has a direct impact on the classification assigned to a film. Violence can be depicted in a number of ways, some of them artistic and creative. As with other classification criteria such as sex or horror, our classification system focuses not so much on what is presented, but how it's presented.

Michelle works in the Information Unit at the NZ Office of Film and Literature Classification. Her views do not represent those of the Chief Censor or of the Classification Office. The Information Unit provides information to other staff, to the public, and to industry members - they are not involved in assigning classifications. Keep up with our blog posts by following us on Facebook and Twitter.

Sin City poster


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