I took a chance and got my hands on Jackie Chan's 2009 Shinjuku Incident - believe it or not, a Chinese-directed Japanese Yakuza film, and was actually shocked at what I found. Jackie Chan can really act! Considering his endless stream of mindless fight movies, comedies, and comedic buddy movies, and other combinations of the sort, I really didn't think he had it in him to pull off a serious role. Like I said - shocking. But in a good way.
Jackie has put together something between a cautionary tale of the difficulties and dangers of being an illegal immigrant and Scarface, using Japan as the backdrop, and Tokyo's Shinjuku district as the location. In an interview, Jackie claimed that the movie was basically a compilation of true stories of illegal immigrants to Japan, which I can't really speak to with any sort of authority, but the smaller events seem plausible enough even if there are aspects of the overall plot that doesn't. One thing is for damn sure, and that is, it sucks to be an illegal immigrant, although as of July 29th, 2010, or so, China has surpassed Japan as the world's second largest economy, so it seems that now it would be a step down for a Chinese to sneak into Japan. In Jackie's interview, he nearly begged people to consider staying home rather than illegally immigrating somewhere where you will have no rights, respect, or an ability to speak the language - per Jackie, anything's better. I believe this was a veiled reference to Canada - Stay North of the border where you can be with your own people speaking your native language - nothing but a sad, dangerous life awaits you South of the border.
Normally when you have a movie with an international cast, you get poorly written dialogue, and/or B actors filling the roles of the non-dominant nationality (Take Karate Kid 2 as a prime example - Japanese rolls filled by non-Japanese and non-native speakers of Japanese, which left poor Japanese dialogue in foreign-accented Japanese), but in this case you get perfectly natural Japanese dialogue, delivered by the legendary actor (at least in my mind) Takenaka Naoto, and undisputed Japanese movie star Kato Masaya (Agitator, Aragami: The Raging God of Battle, Brother) as a police detective and Yakuza boss, respectively. Not to mention a great Japanese supporting cast. On the Chinese side the cast is equally as solid, with a great performance by Jackie Chan himself - so good in fact, it's easy to forget you're watching Jackie Chan, the actor. Daniel Wu (as Jie, or "Joe" in the English subtitles) hits a home run as Nick's younger brother, and takes him from the cheerful, happy-go-lucky roasted chestnut peddler into a downward spiral that ends with him a mere haunted ghost and drugged-out shell of his former self.
Also of note is the portrayal of the city of Tokyo in the movie, which was excellent. Great location shoots in Tokyo and Shinjuku, and per Jackie Chan, he had to get permission from the Yakuza to film there - to which they responded, "Come on over, Jackie!" (My Chinese co-worker gave me the inside scoop that the Yakuza welcomed Jackie Chan with open arms because he is an aniki in his own right in the Chinese mob - we'll leave that one TBD). It's always nice to watch a movie and be able to spot places you've walked past or had lunch at. Shinjuku Station should be familiar to anyone who has been to Tokyo. I've sat there and ate a bento staring up at the giant TV screen more than once myself.
There is more than one trailer for this movie floating around online, but I decided to go with the Japanese version - mainly because I was shocked that it didn't suck - Japanese movie trailers are notoriously horrible. The original, High-Def English international trailer is available here.
Steelhead (鉄頭) or "Nick" in the subtitles (where they came up with "Nick" I'll never guess - Nick from nickle which is a type of metal, just like steel...?) is a poor but happy Chinese mechanic, who's girlfriend Xiu Xiu, goes to visit her aunt in Tokyo and seems to eventually drop off the map. Even Nick's brother Joe in Tokyo can't seem to find her. So Nick does what any good poor country boy does - he becomes an illegal immigrant and takes a boat to Japan, which, fortunately for him, sinks just offshore Tokyo, close enough for him to find his brother Joe in the massive city in a mere two days.
Nick is taken in by his brother and a hoard of illegal compatriots, and does what every illegal immigrant does who is worth his salt - he takes every menial manual labor job that comes around, from separating recyclables at a dump to cleaning sewers - all the while trying to keep a low profile. Eventually he ends up on police radar during a police sewer-raid, and meets his future foe and friend, Inspector Kitano, played by Takenaka Naoto. Takenaka is like the Ed Harris of Japan, and not just because he's bald - he's absolutely ubiquitous in Japanese film and TV, and has the acting range of Ed Harris (1996's Taiga Drama Hideyoshi, Azumi, Gonin, Rampo, Shall We Dance?, Freeze Me, Muscle Heat, Agitator, Water Boys, and so, so much more) - purported to never turn down a role, he keeps turning up like a bad penny, except... well, good.
Nick eventually finds his lost love, Xiu Xiu - it turns out she's gone native; she's changed her name to Yuko, and has married a Yakuza boss named Eguchi Toshinari, second in command of the Sanwa-Kai, played by Kato Masaya. Kato Masaya has played some hella cool gangsters in the past, but now that he's pushing 50, he's playing a more mature Yakuza (I might even throw in "sedate") - a heavy contrast to his portrayal of Kunihiko in Takashi Miike's 2001 movie Agitator (荒ぶる魂たち). Eguchi is an ostensibly open-minded Yakuza when it comes to race relations, at one point stating "I wouldn't discriminate against Chinese" - a statement that seemed awkward - he's got a Chinese wife and a half-Chinese daughter, that should be enough for the audience - I have to admit I hate it when directors go out of their way to point out the obvious. I also have to question just how realistic it is for a high-level Yakuza to marry a Chinese former hostess - guess it's not implausible, but it does seem contrived.
Everything seems to be going OK for Nick and Joe as illegal immigrants at first - Nick makes peace with the fact that his lost love, Xiu Xiu, really is lost to him, so he organizes his Chinese clan into a small time criminal gang specializing in petty theft, shoplifting, selling counterfeit telephone cards (which were the territory of the Iranians while I was living in Japan) and buying high end merchandise with stolen and fake credit cards, all in an attempt to build a life for everyone in Japan. And in a touching scene younger brother Joe is gifted with a chestnut wagon, since he's "too nice to be a criminal". Unfortunately, things go bad for Joe. When Joe mistakenly gets caught up in a plot to steal from the Taiwanese Triad via a rigged Pachinko machine, the Taiwanese boss slashes him across the face, and hacks his right hand off, leaving him scarred and broken, mentally and physically. This event changes everything for the Chinese immigrants, and sends Shinjuku Incident into the direction it was meant to go from the start.
Nick takes off for revenge against the Triad boss, and in doing so ends up foiling an assassination attempt on Eguchi's life. Seeing Nick's potential, Eguchi asks Nick to kill two key members of the Sanwa-Kai, which will put Eguchi squarely in charge. In return he agrees to get Nick legal status in Japan, as well as all of the Taiwan Triad's Shinjuku territory. And so begins Nick's Scarface-like rise to power in Shinjuku. However, unlike Tony Montana, Nick is a reluctant criminal - his intentions are to support his friends and new immigrants, getting them legitimate businesses, but Eguchi's influence drags everyone around him, including his brother Joe, into all manner of vile and illegal enterprises, and Eguchi's ostensible support of the Chinese brings the wrath and power of the Sanwa-Kai to bear on all of them for an epic showdown.
All in all, Shinjuku Incident is a very consistent movie, there isn't a lot of overcompensating with action or violence to shore up any weaker scenes (although the two scenes of Nick as Yakuza Hitman were very well done). In fact, the highlights of Shinjuku Incident are the scenes taking place in public places in Shinjuku. Shinjuku is well represented, and it really looks like director Yee and Jackie Chan had free reign to film wherever they wanted. You never doubt for a moment that the film was shot directly in Shinjuku. It really is a coup for the movie, since lots of outdoor scenes of well known places do seem hard to come by in many movies shot in Japan.
The Violent Rundown.
With my trusty pen and paper I came up with a tally of 5 stabbings (my best guess with the general mayhem at the end), 7 shootings, 3 beatings, two dismemberments, and a killing with a rock to the head. All in all on the higher side of violence of the movies covered on the Rundown so far.
The Final Verdict.
Shinjuku Incident really is an epic film, and done correctly really could have been an hour longer. Part way through, there is a cut to an unspecified point in the future (My best guess is 2-3 years later), which really could have been filled in with some detail. That being said, director Yee did an amazing job - Shinjuku Incident is a solid addition to the Yakuza genre. Great locations, great production value, and great acting. I still can't quite believe this is the same Jackie Chan from The Big Brawl and Rush Hour.
It turns out Jackie Chan is an actor after all.
It is a little unfortunate that Jackie doesn't let go of his good-guy image - everything he does in the film is partly to build a better situation for his Chinese compatriots, and partly because he has no other choice. It would have been interesting to see a "bad" Jackie Chan, but it would have also resulted in a different movie. Despite this, he pulls off a great performance, and at a much higher production value than the typical Japanese Yakuza movie. I'll put this above Like a Dragon, since it is a more serious addition to the genre, with a more interesting plot, but just below Miike's Graveyard of Honor, since it just barely falls short of Yakuza film convention, as Nick never really is forced to tread on the grounds of immorality, regret, or doubt until the very end - and he never has to give up his humanity along the path. Instead, Daniel Wu is installed as the fall guy as Joe, to protect Jackie's good-guy image.
All in all a film well worth the time to see, and is available from the Yakuza Film Rundown via Amazon.com. Don't forget to place your vote on the upper right of the blog for the next Yakuza Film Rundown, and feel free to leave comments below - I'd very much appreciate the feedback - I'm always looking to come up with new ideas and new angles for the blog.
Until next time.