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)

Yakuza Taxi (893 タクシー , Kiyoshi Kurosawa, 1994)

Like many fillmakers of his generation, Kiyoshi Kurosawa began directing commercially in the 1980s working in the pink genre but it was the early ‘90s straight to video boom which provided a career breakthrough. This relatively short lived movement was built on speed where the reliability of the familiar could be harnessed to produce and market low budget genre films with a necessarily high turnover. Kurosawa made his first foray into the V-cinema world in 1994 with the unlikely comedy vehicle Yakuza Taxi (893 タクシー, 893 Taxi). Although Kurosawa had originally accepted the project in the hope of being able to direct a large scale action film, his distaste for the company’s insistence on “jingi” (the yakuza code of honour and humanity) proved something of a barrier but it did, at least, lend free rein to the director’s rather ironic sense of humour.

The Tanaka taxi firm has hit on some hard times and is in trouble over a series of promissory notes owned by a former yakuza loanshark. Luckily, Tanaka is lifelong friends with a local yakuza boss who is angry about the dishonourable way his friend has been treated and is determined to help him. He also sees this as a rare opportunity to prove the yakuza can still be of help in an “honest” way and therefore instructs three of his guys to get some fake driving/taxi licenses and set about making enough money to fend off the loansharks. The guys are soon joined by the recently released Seiji who wasn’t really planning on a secondary career as a taxi driver after sacrificing precious time in service of his clan and is not happy with his current career track.

The set-up is, of course, primed for comedy as the yakuza, who are known for being rough, rowdy and rude, suddenly have to adapt to a job which requires absolute politeness and courtesy. The original trio do their best learning from the company’s only remaining professional driver, Kimura, and come to view radio girl and boss’ daughter Kanako as a kind of big sister figure. Once Seiji arrives things begin to become more complicated as he maintains a number of yakuza habits incompatible with taxi driving – namely all day drinking, hostess bars, and beating up the passengers.

Seiji and Kanako spit fire at each other in place of courtship though Kanako’s often surly attitude is later revealed as.partly driven by resentment at being forced to labour in a boring job at her father’s company. The guys are supposed to be earning the money back legally but Seiji has always been one for a short cut. His ill gotten gains are ultimately rejected by Kanako, but not before they’ve caused a lot more trouble. The situation becomes even more challenging when a corrupt policeman teams up with the loansharks to harass the guys, even going to far as to make them drive to remote places where they can be beaten up by motorcycle thugs. Finally the game appears to be up when Kanako attempts to renegotiate and is offered “alternative employment” with the threat of enslavement hanging over her head.

Despite the comedic tone, sleaze is never far from the screen with two quite odd and extremely gratuitous sequences of strange boob fondling, not to mention one set of passengers who are delighted that they’re “alone now” and decide to make the most of it with some distinctly kinky action (Seiji makes a point of giving the male customer a few lessons in taxi etiquette before they reach their destination). Comedy is the main draw, there are no gun battles and relatively few actual fights aside from failed jump kicks and the distant thud of crowbars. Remaining more or less straightforward in terms of style, Kurosawa nevertheless embraces his taste for the absurd as this gang of low level bad guys come together to help a friend and discover an unexpected affinity for the service industry in the process.


 

A Weapon in My Heart (我が胸に凶器あり, AKA A Cop, A Bitch, and a Killer, Shinji Aoyama, 1996)

a-weapon-in-my-heartShinji Aoyama would produce one of the most important Japanese films of the early 21st century in Eureka, but like many directors of his generation he came of age during the V-cinema boom. This relatively short lived medium was the new no holds barred arena for fledgling filmmakers who could adhere to a strict budget and shooting schedule but were also aching to spread their wings. After a short period as an AD with fellow V-cinema director now turned international auteur Kiyoshi Kurosawa, Aoyama directed his first straight to video effort – the sex comedy It’s Not in the Textbook!. Released just after his theatrical debut, Helpless, A Weapon in My Heart (我が胸に凶器あり, Waga Mune ni Kyoki Ari, AKA A Cop, A Bitch, and a Killer) is a more typically genre orientated effort with its cops, robbers, and femme fatale setup but like the best examples of the V-cinema trend it bears the signature of its ambitious director making the most of its humble origins.

Call girl Alice has ripped off her gangster bosses for a large amount of heroine only her accomplice has got cold feet and called a relative in the police force. The kid gets shot as officers Goro and his partner Yoshioka wade in all guns blazing but Alice calmly allows herself to be taken into custody. Yoshioka is a strangely cheerful chap who informs Alice that he has a game running where he gives suspects odds to bet on their likelihood of escape. Hers are brilliant because there is no way she is getting away. However, the trio are ambushed by crazy gangster Matsumura and his gang forcing Goro and Alice onto the run. In addition to avoiding Matsumura and his dastardly schemes, Goro and Alice are also being stalked by a mysterious hitman, Hoshi, who claims to be “watching from up above” and has his own motives for his bizarrely heroic hunting style.

This being a V-cinema effort, the production values are low, shot in widescreen but on the kind of cheap video cameras common to the V-cinema movement. Nevertheless, Aoyama makes the most of what he has to create a stylish genre throwback which recalls the Nikkatsu action films of years gone by only a little less madcap even if leaning towards the surreal. Told in a non-linear fashion, exposition is delivered largely through flashbacks but each of these is innovatively offered such as in a touching scene in which Goro remembers a conversation with Yoshioka in which only the lighting darkens to let us know that the happy memory has ended and the melancholy present has resumed. Similar techniques mark Alice’s frequent flashbacks to her traumatic crime, though in line with their much more pressing nature Alice’s memories are given harsher, more abrupt entrances and exits, lacerating the screen as they do her mind.

The genre elements may be familiar enough but Aoyama ensures each of the major players is fully drawn despite the necessarily tight running time. Good cop Goro is arguably the least explored but it’s antagonist Hoshi who leaves the biggest mark. A joke that’s somewhat lost in translation runs on the fact that “Hoshi” means star which lends an oddly comic dimension to his frequently uttered catch phrase in which he promises to be watching “from up above”. Having once abandoned the killing game, Hoshi has found himself forced back into the life in order to earn the money to pay for an operation to restore the sight of his blinded son – something he feels karmically responsible for. Frequently letting our heroes go out of a debt of honour, Hoshi nevertheless has his mission to complete, no matter how much it might offend him to do so.

Our policemen also seem to operate from a mysterious antique shop where they keep the records for their escape based betting games. Add in weird dirt bike riders, mysterious statues, and strange phone calls not to mention a horror movie inspired sequence where our two heroes are trapped in a shed while the enemy looms large in a thunderstorm outside and there are plenty of interesting quirks to be going on with. Deaths are dramatic, slow motion falls and set pieces become remarkably elaborate but there’s also a sort of childish innocence as a fearsome killer tries and fails to unwrap one of his beloved boiled sweets even as he dies. Very much part of the fast and loose V-cinema universe, A Weapon in My Heart is also pure Aoyama, filled with strange details and surrealist touches but ultimately imbued with his own strange brand of humanity.


 

Kuro (はなればなれに, Daisuke Shimote, 2012)

poster2All these years later, it’s easy to forget just how revolutionary the wheezy, breezy youthfulness of the French New Wave was. Kuro proves that there’s life in this whimsical, summer seaside feeling yet as three misfits find themselves holing up at a disused small hotel to think about what they’ve done until they learn to grow up a little.

Kuro starts our story as she mournfully chows down on some of the pastries at the bakery she works at whilst treating a customer in a very disdainful way. She wanted to be a baker but her boss never really lets her do anything and when they argue about her guzzling half the stock she quits in a fit of pique. Roaming around the city doing absurd things like partying with a jazz band before running off with their change can or messing around with a sharp suited guy in a hotel room she meets womanising stage actor Gou who’s had a tiff with his actress wife after paying to much attention to the new girl. He flirts with and eventually semi-kidnaps Kuro for a road trip where they meet photographer Eito who has also had a tiff with his woman over having neglected to file the marriage papers at city hall. He’s heading up to an old hotel his uncle used to own where he was meant to spend his honeymoon and invites Gou and Kuro to join him.

Kuro’s original Japanese title, はなればなれに “Hanarebanare ni” literally means “scattered pieces” and was, coincidentally, the same title used for Godard’s 1964 masterpiece Bande à part. First time director Daisuke Shimote wears his influences on his sleeve with an atmosphere that recalls early period Godard which is all whimsy minus Godard’s slightly arch, confrontational irony. Leading lady Kuro, played by Airi Kido, has a definite touch of Anna Karina running through her from the way her retro haircut neatly frames her child-like face to her striped top and colourful red skirt. Taking her cue from Karina’s innocent insouciance, her absurd, pixyish pranks take on a cute and quirky quality which is backed up by a youthfully punkish disregard for the normal order of things.

Kido dances with the jazz band like Karina dancing in the bar in Vivre sa Vie and the gang even fake die in a water gun and finger shoot out a la Franz and Arthur in Bande à part. There’s also something of Tati in the intricate way Shimote sets up what are actually quite small and simple jokes like the Wii tennis match that suddenly turns into an entirely different kind of “virtual” game. At this point, the photographer who’s been perpetually on the sidelines, observing, finds himself joining in and experiencing his very own Natasha at the dance moment which, perhaps, finally allows him to break through something that’s been causing a rift in his personal life.

Through their season at the sea, each of these disparate characters comes to a kind of personal realisation that leaves them, well, more or less the same but much more settled. Kuro learns that sometimes you just have to buckle down and do as you’re told, Gou perhaps learns to be nicer to his wife and Eito maybe realises that you don’t know what you’ve got until it’s leaving you. Each of the characters is quite depressed, in the best new wave tradition, or just filled with ennui but perhaps you can’t have these kinds of absurd adventures in any other mood. That said, the heavier side of new wave surrealism with its nihilistic overtones is almost entirely absent leaving the atmosphere light and bright with the feeling that everything will (probably) be alright in the end.

Light on conventional narrative and high on sight gags and surrealist humour, Daisuke Shimote has crafted a charming and amusing new wave inspired ensemble comedy that, yes, wears its influences on its sleeves but isn’t afraid to bring its own moves to the dance floor. It might seem a little bit like a curveball from someone who’s spent so much of his previous life studying the work of Ozu with his formalist compositions and inclusory tatami mat viewpoint, but then Ozu was also a master of subtlety who could make peeling an apple into one of the most profoundly moving scenes in cinema history and Shimote is able to harness a similar fastidiousness here only in more of a comedic bent. Charming, whimsical, absurd but absolutely internally consistent, cinematically literate and beautifully made Kuro is one of the most impressive feature length debuts of recent times and hints at a promising career for its still inexperienced director.


Bonus videos of people (mostly Anna Karina) dancing in Godard films: