I just got my first dousing. A couple shots to the stomach and a blast in the back. The Songkran festival began today in Bangkok. It was apparently once a somber religious festival in which water was poured over friends, family and elders to cleanse them of the past year’s bad luck so they can begin anew. That aspect of the festival is still around but for many others Bangkok turns into a giant water pistol shoot-em-up obstacle course in which foreigners are not only fair game but prized targets. It is pretty difficult even getting to the corner 7-11 without getting drenched to the great delight of any Thai around. Having fun (sanuk) is a big part of Thai culture and no more so than during Songkran with a farang in your gun sights. So I may be spending much of the next few days ensconced in my apartment or lying by the pool munching on Famous Amos cookies and sandwiches. It’s not that I mind getting soaking wet – time after time after time – but I am told that to increase the sanuk factor the Thai’s now sometimes add various components to the water like oil and cement. I think my pasting was pure water though. At any rate, this has given me time to write up a short review on Shinjuku Incident which is playing here in a bunch of theaters but only in one as far as I know that isn’t dubbed into Thai. So earlier in the week I found my way to the RCA Complex along with another Asian film fan who was passing through town.
Director: Derek Yee
Jacky Chan has been threatening for years that at some point in the future he will move from action to drama films. In his mid-50’s now, that isn’t a bad game plan. Still it wasn’t something that his fans or anyone else was anxiously waiting for. Shinjuku Incident is to a large degree that film. In a way, it’s like going to watch a famous strip tease artist only to discover that on this night she has decided to stay fully clothed and will perform a tea ceremony. You keep waiting for the joke to end and for the clothes to come off. They never do and you are not sure if you just got gypped or have witnessed a new art form in the making. Either way you have to admit to yourself that you would have preferred seeing her disrobe even if doing a tea ceremony. In Shinjuku Incident violence swirls all around Jackie’s character for much of the film, but he stays true to his tractor driving character and refrains from any snazzy acrobatics or kung fu whacks. Not doing so would have made this a Jackie Chan film rather than a Derek Yee picture – but it sure would have felt good seeing him smack down some nasty Yakuza’s.
Going with Derek Yee for his first dramatic outing was probably a good choice for Jacky – over the years Yee has shown himself comfortable both with straight drama (Lost in Time) and with crime stories (One Nite in Mongkok). Still this is a tricky balancing act – how do you have Jackie in a drama without bringing lots of baggage and expectations with him – and without allowing Jackie to make this his movie. For the most part I think Yee succeeds admirably by adroitly pulling together numerous threads and characters and making Jackie’s part less than the whole. He also surrounds him with a terrific cast. But it has to be said that Jacky is really not all that great a dramatic actor and I think this hurts the film overall – he can play serious but he can’t do it with any lightness, charm, nuance or layers. In Shinjuku he is so constantly honorable and dour that even Fan Bing Bing making goo-goo eyes at him doesn’t bring a smile or a tumble in bed. This was a role made for Lau Ching-wan and if he had been cast I think this would have been one of Yee’s better films. It is still a very solid fast moving crime drama that builds tension slowly and inexorably to the crackling climax. Some others who have seen the film have given it thumbs down based to a large degree on Daniel’s Wu’s over the top nutty manic performance but this was only a mild distraction to me and really only effects the last 20-minutes of the movie.
Shinjuku throws a sharp dagger through the heart of the supposed brotherhood and code of criminal gangs. Steelhead (Jackie) is a small town tractor driver in the Mainland whose fiancée goes to Tokyo to make some money before they get married. She disappears . . . for years. He illegally immigrates to Japan to look for her and after arriving he meets up with fellow townsman Jie (Wu) who introduces him to the tough life of illegal Chinese immigrants in Japan where the work is hard, the pay is low and the cops are always after you. There are others in this merry band of Chinese (Chin Kar-lok, Lam Suet, Ken Lo) and they get by through work or small time swindles. Through a series of somewhat incredulous events Steelhead discovers that his fiancée is now married to a top Yakuza Lieutenant and decides to work his way up the criminal food chain. Jie at the same time only wants to be chestnut vendor but some very bad luck sets him on a path to Wu nuttiness and bad wigs and fashion statements. As internecine gang war breaks out among the Yakuza, Steelhead and his Chinese gang become involved and all bets are off as to who is coming out of this alive and who can be trusted. It is quite compelling and certainly a stern lesson to Mainland Chinese about trying to make their fortunes by sneaking into Japan (the film is set of course in the 1990’s before the Chinese Economic Miracle)! Good parts are also handed over to Jack Kao, Kenya Sawada, Yasuaki Kurata, and Paul Chun Pui.
My rating for this film: 7.5