Mr. Long (ミスター・ロン, SABU, 2017)

Mr. LongTaiwan and Japan have a complicated history, but in SABU’s latest slice of cross-cultural interplay each place becomes a kind of refuge from the other. Working largely in Mandarin and with Taiwanese star Chang Chen, SABU returns to a familiar story – the lonely hitman tempted by a normal family life filled with peace and simplicity only to have his dreams taken from him by the spectre of his past. Only this time it isn’t just his past but that of others too. Despite the melancholy air, Mr. Long (ミスター・ロン) is a testament to the power of simple human kindness but also a condemnation of underworld cruelty and its vicelike grip on all who enter its grasp.

Mr. Long (Chen Chang) is the best hitman in the Taiwanese underground. A part-time cook, he’s known for his knife skills and fearless action, entering a room full of gangsters and instantly eviscerating them before they can even reach for their weapons. Sent to Japan to take out a prominent yakuza, Mr. Long finds his usual methods ineffective owing to the fact his target is wearing a stab vest. Captured, beaten and driven out into the middle of nowhere, Mr. Long is beginning to think this is the end of his story when the gangsters are attacked by another knife wielding assailant repeatedly asking them to free his girl. Mr. Long escapes in the ensuing chaos but has no money or way back home.

Marooned and bleeding in a rundown area, Mr. Long is saved by quiet little boy who brings him first medical supplies and then some probably stolen vegetables. Mr. Long manages to find an abandoned house which still has running water and cooking facilities and shares his improbably tasty soup with the little boy whose name is Jun. Surprisingly, Jun can speak fluent Mandarin because his mother, Lily, is also from Taiwan. Soon enough, other people in the area start to hear about the mysterious stranger and his wondrous cooking. Before he knows what’s happening, the tiny town has adopted him and built a stall on a cart where he can sell Taiwanese beef noodles.

SABU embraces his absurd sense of humour as Mr. Long’s capture becomes a cartoonish slapstick affair which ultimately sees him running off into the night with a sack on his head before regaining his quintessential cool. Mr. Long is the archetypal movie hitman – the major reason why he doesn’t say much is firstly that he doesn’t know any Japanese but  his conversations with the boy are pretty one sided and he doesn’t seem to be the chattiest even in Taiwan. Confused as to why all of this is happening Mr. Long asks Jun for guidance only for him to point out that it’s his own fault for acting so cool and never saying anything.

Yet for all the comedy there’s an underlying sadness as Mr. Long comes to care for this strangely friendly village which has more or less adopted him, providing him with food, clothing, and even an occupation in his brand new beef noodle stand. Even though he’s been in contact with his bosses and is supposed to get a boat to Taiwan in just a few days, Mr. Long doesn’t quite want to go home and let all of these nice people down. Especially as he’s begun to bond with the boy and grow closer to his mother.

Both Mr. Long and Lily are people who’ve had their lives ruined by proximity to the underworld – his by being trapped into a profession of killing with no possibility of escape, and hers by losing the love of her life to men who claimed to own her. Lily’s story is a sad one which eventually sees her fall into prostitution as a means of caring for her son only to be exploited by a duplicitous customer who gets her hooked on heroine as a means of control. Mr. Long frees her from this particular demon and the three begin to look as if they could make a go of things together only for the past to suddenly reappear and ruin everything.

Unexpectedly dark, Mr. Long veers between whimsical comedy and heartbreaking tragedy as its hero begins to long for another life which he knows he will be denied. Filled with SABU’s typically absurd world view mixed with balletic yet horrifying violence as the lonely hitman becomes the dragon spelt out in his name, Mr. Long is a familiar gangland tale in which a man cannot escape his past or his nature and risks rejection from those who’ve come to love him when they discover who he really is, but even if there can be no escape for some there is hope of redemption in human kindness and genuine connection.


Mr. Long was screened at the 17th Nippon Connection Japanese Film Festival.

Original trailer (no subtitles)

Happiness (ハピネス, SABU, 2016)

happiness still“Memories are what warm you up from the inside. But they’re also what tear you apart” runs the often quoted aphorism from Haruki Murakami. SABU seems to see things the same way and indulges an equally surreal side of himself in the sci-fi tinged Happiness (ハピネス). Memory, as the film would have it, both sustains and ruins – there are terrible things which cannot be forgotten, no matter how hard one tries, while the happiest moments of one’s life get lost among the myriad everyday occurrences. Happiness is the one thing everyone craves even if they don’t quite know what it is, little knowing that they had it once if only for a few seconds, but if the desire to attain “happiness” is itself a reason for living could simply obtaining it by technological means do more harm than good?

A man gets off a country bus carrying a large, mysterious looking box. He stops into the only visible building which happens to a be a “convenience” store housing a wizened old woman who tells the man to just take the bottle of water he is trying to buy because once she gets rid of everything in the shop she can finally die and escape her misery. The man leaves the money anyway and exits the shop, only to make a swift return, take a large helmet studded with old-fashioned round typewriter keys out of his box and place it on the old woman’s head. After the man makes a few adjustments the old woman is thrown into reverie, remembering a time when she was just a small child and her mother greeted her when she arrived home all by herself. Overwhelmed with feeling her mother’s love, the old woman comes back to life and rediscovers a zest for living which she’d long since given up.

So begins the strange odyssey of Kanzaki (Masatoshi Nagase) who finds himself in one of Japan’s most depressed towns where everyone hangs around listlessly, sitting in waiting rooms waiting for nothing in particular, passing the time until it runs out. Suggesting one of the women in the strange waiting area might like to try on the helmet, Kanzaki gets himself arrested but after the police try it out too he comes to the attention of the mayor who invites him to stay hoping the “happiness machine” can help revitalise the dying community and stop some of the young people blowing out of town looking for somewhere less soul-destroying to call home. Kanzaki’s request to access the town census, however, hints at an ulterior motive and it’s as well to note that a happiness machine could also be a sadness machine if you run it in reverse.

SABU’s long and varied career has taken him from men who can’t stop running to those who can’t start, but the men and women of Happiness are impeded by forces more emotional than physical manifesting themselves through bodily inertia. Like many towns in modern Japan, the small village Kanzaki finds himself in is facing a depopulation crisis as the old far outweigh the young and the idea of the future almost belongs to the past. Those who don the happiness helmet regain access to a long-buried memory which reminds them what it feels like to live again. Almost reborn they start to believe that true happiness is possible, that they were once loved, and that their lives truly do have meaning. Yet they can experience all of this joy only because of the intense collective depression they’d hitherto been labouring under. Happiness is only possible because of sorrow, and so the two must work in concert to create a kind of melancholy equilibrium.

Melancholy is a quality which seems to define Kanzaki, inventor of a machine he says can make people happy. As it turns out, his motives were not exactly all about peace and love but a means to an end, his own sorrows run deep and his solution to easing them is a darker one than simply becoming lost in his happy memories. Turning his own machine against itself, he forces a man to relive what he claims is the worst night of his life – one which he could not forget, and one which plagues him every night before he tries to go to sleep. Showing him happy memories too only seems to deepen the pain, though the explanation they eventually offer for his subsequent actions makes him a victim too, betrayed by those who should have protected him and eventually taking his revenge on innocents whose only crime was to be a happy family in front of a man from an unforgiving one.

Painting his world in an almost comforting green tint which can’t help but recall the dull but calming colours of a hospital, SABU channels Roy Andersson by way of David Lynch in his deadpan detachment which becomes humorous precisely because of its overt lack of comic intent. The clues are planted early from a flash of Kanzaki’s wedding ring but refusal to answer question about his family to his hangdog expression and general air of someone who carries a heavy burden, but SABU neatly changes gear surreptitiously to explore what the true explanation is for Kanzaki’s strange machine and improbable arrival in such a small, uninteresting town. Memory is a cruel burden, offering both joy and sorrow, but there can be no happiness without suffering and no life without a willingness to embrace them both the same.


Happiness was screened at the 17th Nippon Connection Film Festival.

Busan trailer (no subtitles)

Monday (マンデイ, SABU, 2000)

mondayWaking up in an unfamiliar hotel room can be a traumatic and confusing experience. The hero of SABU’s madcap amnesia sit in odyssey finds himself in just this position though he is, at least, fully clothed even if trying to think through the fog of a particularly opaque booze cloud. Monday (マンデイ) is film about Saturday night, not just literally but mentally – about a man meeting his internal Saturday night in which he suddenly lets loose with all that built up tension in an unexpected, and very unwelcome, way.

Mild mannered salaryman Takagi (Shinichi Tsutsumi) wakes up in his cheap hotel room dressed in a pitch black suit and with no recollection of how he got there. A packet of purification salt reminds him he was going to a funeral, but what happened after that? Takagi, it seems, enjoys a drink or two to ease that ever present sense of dread and impotence which dominates his life and so the events of the previous two days are lost in that pale space obscured by a booze drenched curtain of brain fog. Spotting various reminders hidden in his room Takagi begins to piece his strange adventure together from a bad date with the girlfriend whose birthday he blew off to go to the funeral, to a weird fortune teller, a beautiful woman, guns, gangsters and a homicidal killing spree. All in all, perhaps it was better when he couldn’t remember.

As usual, SABU weaves his complex comedy into a complicated cycle of interconnected gags. Takagi remains within the purgatory of his hotel room, furiously trying to remember how he got there but this otherwise anodyne space seems to be a reflection of his everyday persona in its inoffensive blandness, littered as it is with indications of the deeper layers implied by the still unknown actions of the previous few days. Judging by his appearance, Takagi is a shy, nervous man hidden behind his unstylish glasses and neatly swept back hair. Fearing his adventures are about to signal the end of his existence, Takagi suddenly gets the inspiration to make a proper will/suicide note which largely consists of a number of apologies firstly to his parents and siblings and finally to the girlfriend who walked out on him in the bar owing to his failure to appear for her birthday celebration and subsequently bizarre behaviour. The second portion of the letter also includes some advice to his siblings about how to look after the family pets and some horticultural tips but as he takes a few more drinks to steady his nerves, those deeper layers start to bleed through and so he takes this opportunity to advise his girlfriend that she should work on her anger issues and also avoid finishing other people’s sentences for them.

In Takagi’s defense, he has had a strange few days. The funeral of a close friend, especially one so young, might be enough to tip anyone into a spot of drunken introspection but the send off for former hair model Mitsuo (Masanobu Ando) is hardly a typical one given that it ends with the corpse exploding after Takagi is asked and then fails to “defuse” it. When he should probably take the opportunity to talk to someone about the things which are bothering him, Takagi has another drink, does his strange little laugh, and internalises his irritation with the very people who might be able to help him. Retreating to the bathroom carrying the memory of a stunning woman spotted at the bar with him, he returns to find a gloomy yakuza sitting in the adjacent seat intent on drinking and talking. Rather than saying a flat no and going home like a sensible person, Takagi keeps drinking until he feels like partying with the most dangerous guys in the room, even going so far as a raunchy dance with the gangster’s girl. The gangster, strangely, doesn’t mind and even seems to think he’s found a cool new friend but when everyone’s this drunk and there are guns around nothing is going to end well.

The finale finds SABU at his most sarcastic as the imprisoned Takagi indulges in a hero fantasy of taking the cops hostage and heading outside to meet the forces of authority head on only to give them a lecture about the danger of firearms and the necessity of love and kindness in a strange world. Needless to say, his message of peace is not universally well received. Takagi might have a point when he says that none of this would have happened if it hadn’t been for the shotgun – such a powerful and easy to use weapon in the hands of those who previously felt so powerless can indeed be a dangerous thing, but the fact remains that he harboured all of this fear and resentment inside himself, attempting to drown it with booze but continually failing. We leave Takagi trapped inside the hotel room, as he’s always been trapped inside his mind, holding a possibly empty shotgun at a flimsy hotel room door with all of that pressure pushing down outside it. The gun is one thing, and guns are bad, but the enemy will always be Monday – the modern world is driving people crazy and could use some of that love and kindness Takagi was so keen on during his hostage crisis but it probably won’t work until he puts the gun (and the booze) down and opens that hotel room door.


Original trailer (no subtitles)

Hold Up Down (ホールドアップダウン, SABU, 2005)

hold-up-downReteaming with popular boy band V6, SABU returns with another madcap caper in the form of surreal farce Hold Up Down (ホールドアップダウン). Holding up is, as usual, not on SABU’s roadmap as he proceeds at a necessarily brisk pace, weaving these disparate plot strands into their inevitable climax. Perhaps a little shallower than the director’s other similarly themed offerings, Hold Up Down mixes everything from reverse Father Christmasing gone wrong, to gun obsessed policemen, train obsessed policewomen, clumsy defrocked priests carrying the cross of frozen Jesus, and a Shining-esque hotel filled with creepy ghosts. Quite a lot to be going on with but if SABU has proved anything it’s that he’s very adept at juggling.

Christmas Eve – two guys hold up a bank whilst cunningly disguised as Santas, but emerging with the money they find their getaway car getting away from them on the back of a tow truck. Still dressed as Father Christmases, the guys head for the subway and decide to stash the cash in a coin locker only neither of them has any change. After robbing a busker at gunpoint for 800 yen, the duo get rid of the loot but the guy chases after them at which point they lose the key which the busker swallows after being hit by a speeding police car. Trying to cover up the crime the two policeman bundle him into the car but crash a short time later at which time the busker gets thrown in a lake and then retrieved by a defrocked priest under the misapprehension that he is Japanese Jesus!

Following SABU’s usual spiralling chase formula, events quickly escalate as one random incident eventually leads to another. Christmas is a time of romance in Japan, though encountering the love of your life during a bank robbery is less than ideal. After a love at first sight moment heralded by a musical cue, the thieves head back on the run with the girl in tow but the course of true love never did run smooth. If romance is one motivator – death is another. On this holiest of days, our defrocked priest is caught in a moment of despair, contemplating the ultimate religious taboo in taking his own life and ending the torment he feels in having failed God so badly. Therefore, when our scruffy hippy busker washes up right nearby he draws the obvious conclusion – Jesus has returned to save him! Attempting to make up for his numerous mistakes, the priest is determined to save and preserve his Lord, but, again, his clumsiness results in more catastrophes.

The situation resolves itself as each of the players winds up at the same abandoned hot springs resort which turns out to be not quite so closed down as everyone thought. Filled with ghostly charm, the gloomy haunted house atmosphere sends everyone over the edge as they thrash out their various issues as if possessed by madness. Culminating in a sequence of extreme slapstick in which everyone fights with everyone else and frozen Jesus plays an unexpectedly active part, Hold Up Down brings all of its surreal goings on to a suitably absurd conclusion in which it seems perfectly reasonable that those wishing to leave limbo land could take a 2.5hr bus trip back to the afterlife.

Pure farce and lacking the heavier themes of other SABU outings, Hold Up Down, can’t help but feel something of a lightweight exercise but that’s not to belittle the extreme intricacy of the plotting or elegance of its resolution. An innovativeIy integrated early fantasy sequence begins the voyage into the surreal which is completed in the strangely spiritual haunted house set piece as the disillusioned priest spends some time with congenial demons before attempting to make his peace with God only for it all to go wrong again. If there is a god here, it’s the Lord of Misrule but thankfully they prove a benevolent one as somehow everything seems to shake itself out with each of our troubled protagonists discovering some kind of inner calm as a result of their strange adventure, as improbable as it seems (in one way or another). Christmas is a time for ghost stories, after all, but you’ll rarely find one as joyful as Hold Up Down.


Scene from the end of the film:

Dead Run (疾走, SABU, 2005)

Dead run posterSABU might have gained a reputation for his early work which often featured scenes of characters in rapid flight from one thing or another but Dead Run both embraces and rejects this aspect of his filmmaking as it presents the idea of running and its associated freedom as an unattainable dream. Based on the novel by Kiyoshi Shigematsu, Dead Run (疾走, Shisso) is the tragic story of its innocent hero, Shuji, who sees his world crumble before him only to become the sacrifice which redeems it.

The story begins in a voice over narration offered in the second person by Shuji’s older brother, Shuichi. Shuji, it seems was a curious, if shy, little boy full of the usual childish questions and a curiosity about the way his world works. The boys live with their parents in an area they call “the shore” which is next to a settlement created through reclaimed land which the shore people refer to as “offshore” and somewhat look down on. One day, Shuji gets marooned offshore when his bicycle chain snaps and is rescued by the unlikely saviour of “Demon Ken” (Susumu Terajima) – a local petty gangster whom everyone is afraid of, and his girlfriend, Akane (Miki Nakatani), who is some kind of bar hostess. Soon after, Demon Ken is found buried in a shallow grave dead of a gunshot wound to the stomach, but somehow this improbable act of kindness has stuck in Shuji’s mind.

Moving on a few years, a creepy looking priest moves into the offshore area and opens up a church in a small hut complete with shiny silver crosses. Just like with Demon Ken, there’s a rumour about town that the priest, Father Yuichi (Etsushi Toyokawa), is a former criminal and murderer. Shuji becomes intrigued by the strange figure of the priest and a young girl his age, Eri (Hanae Kan), who likes to spend time in the church. However, more gangsters soon turn up wanting to buy up the offshore area to build an entertainment complex and even though most of the other residents have agreed to be resettled elsewhere, Father Yuichi won’t budge. Akane returns to the area as one of the higher ranking gangsters trying to force the church out and is happy to realise that Shuji, at least, has not forgotten Demon Ken. This won’t be the last time the pair meet again as circumstances conspire against the young boy to drag him ever deeper into the darkness of the shady adult world.

As a young boy, Shuji’s life is the ideal pastoral childhood full of bike rides through green fields and under cloudless blue skies, yet his once happy family dissolves and though he tries to run from his destiny he can not escape it. After his over achieving older brother Shuichi is caught cheating at school and is suspended, he begins to lose his mind becoming obsessed with the idea of the priest as a murderer and is fixated on exposing some dark secret about him. Of course, it turns out not to be exactly as he thought it was and Shuichi becomes increasingly disturbed before becoming a suspect in a series of local crimes which see him sent away to reform school. After this string of tragedies, Shuji’s parents start to fall apart too – his father disappearing and his mother mentally absent. Eventually even Eri leaves as the relocation programme finally kicks in.

Around this point our narrative voice shifts to that of Father Yuichi who becomes Shuji’s only responsible adult figure. However, Father Yuichi’s decision to take Shuji on a trip proves to be a disastrous one as it backfires massively forcing him onto the run and, coincidentally, straight into the arms of Akane. Though Akane had originally seemed an austere and difficult woman, she harbours an affection for Shuji as one of the few people to remember Demon Ken and to remember him for his kindness. Though she wants to help Shuji she ends up pulling him into a the darkness of her own world filled with violence and exploitation. Shuji runs again and eventually makes his way to Tokyo and to Eri who is just as broken as he is but there’s no salvation here either. Even when the pair attempt to travel back to their once idyllic childhood town, their problems follow them and destiny catches up with everyone, in the end.

Early on Father Yuichi and Eri are having a discussion about the difference between fate and karma and which might be more frightening. Eri says fate is better because you can’t change karma but perhaps you can change your fate. The film seems to disagree with her. You can try to run but somehow or other something will always stop you so the cold hand of fate can stretch its icy fingers around your heart. Different in both tone and style from SABU’s previous work, Dead Run is a bleak tale filled with loneliness and melancholy which, though it offers a glimmer of hope for those who are left behind, is not afraid to make a sacrificial lamb of its holy fool of a protagonist.


The Hong Kong R3 DVD release of Dead Run contains English subtitles.

Based on the book of the same name by Kiyoshi Shigematsu (as yet unavailable in English).

Unsubbed trailer:

Chasuke’s Journey (天の茶助, SABU, 2015)

jon_chirashiNo fate but what we make – to steal the lines from another film just as one of the heavenly scriptwriters might in the latest film from the prolific Japanese director SABU (otherwise known as the actor Hiroyuki Tanaka), Chasuke’s Journey (天の茶助, Ten no Chasuke). Adapting his own novel for the screen (though the book was actually published after the film was completed), Sabu creates a romantic fantasy in which a lowly tea boy from heaven descends to Earth on a quest to save the woman he loves from certain death.

Chasuke (Kenichi Matsuyama) is the tea boy in “heaven” (his name, “Chasuke” literally means “tea assistant”). Here, there is a room full of scriptwriters who draft life stories for the people down below in service to The Man. Their task is a difficult one as each change in one person’s screenplay necessitates a change in all the others. It’s the butterfly effect gone mad. So, when The Man sends in a request for everything to suddenly go “more avant-garde” everyone is a little bit overworked. One writer asks Chasuke’s advice on what this might mean but all he comes up with is moving the action to a karaoke booth which has the unfortunate effect on the scene of getting the man’s proposal of marriage rejected causing him to leave in a mood and callously run Yuri (Ito Ono), whom Chasuke has developed a fondness for, over. Yuri’s screenwriter begs Chasuke to go down to Earth and use his unique powers to save her before it’s too late.

Luckily two of the other scriptwriters have pledged to support Chasuke’s mission from up above so he gets help from a former aspiring actor who now runs a small antique shop (Ren Osugi) and a broken hearted former boxer who now runs a ramen bar (Yusuke Iseya). Co-incidentally, both know and like Yuri who is a regular customer at both of their establishments. Coming from up above, Chasuke is already quite familiar with each of the character’s backstories and is able to fill us in with a touch of storytelling of his own. SABU has a dig here at unimaginative screenwriters who’ve ripped off most of their best ideas from other movies, which is sort of ignoring the fact that someone must have crafted the movies from up above anyway though the thought of screenwriters scripting screenwriters writing scripts about scriptwriters sort of makes your head spin.

Anyway, without venturing too far into spoiler territory, Chasuke’s quest is finished within the first half of the film with the remainder given over to a confused series of episodes featuring him as a celebrity healer committed to correcting all the awful scripts full of misery that his hack friends have come up with. That’s in addition to the constant threats of correction to Chasuke’s edits threatened by the jilted lover and a policeman who’ve both been given white painted faces (to be more “avant-garde”, as requested). Oh, and Chasuke’s memories of a former mortal life also start to return with a fairly surprising backstory of his own.

In truth, it’s all a little messy – almost as if someone were still working on the second draft even as we’re watching it. However, that’s sort of the point – we are watching someone re-writing on the hoof, trying to accommodate for someone else’s notes right as the keys are hitting the paper (or in this case, the ink splashing the parchment). When you come right down to it, life is a messy business and rarely makes any kind of sense during the “live broadcast”. Chasuke’s final message proves something of a riddle as he at once advises you to stick to The Man by living your own life and forging your own destiny whilst also putting his salvation down to the power of prayer which is about as close as you can get to an existential paradox.

Often beautifully photographed with Chasuke’s escape from up above an early highlight, Chasuke’s Journey is certainly a handsome looking film whatever faults it may have. Though the performances are committed, it never quite makes the jump from gentle satire to anything more emotionally engaging undermining the impact of its final sequence. However, for the vast majority of its running time Chasuke’s Journey does prove an interesting, if slightly flippant, take on freewill versus predestination with a hearty dose of social criticism thrown in to boot.


The Japanese blu-ray/DVD release of Chasuke’s Journey includes English subtitles.

(Unsubtitled trailer again though, sorry).