The debut feature of New York-based filmmaker Oudai Kojima, Joint takes the structure of a rise-and-fall gangster picture and tries to imbue it with procedural details and a documentary-style immediacy. It’s mostly successful, although the diffuse narrative and sizable number of characters constantly threaten to get away from the filmmakers. After a two-year prison sentence, Takeshi Ishigami (Ikken Yamamoto, in an impressively modulated performance) has been released. Working a dead-end construction job to save money, he eventually moves back to Tokyo with the help of best friend, Yasu, and starts drumming up business with his old Yakuza buddies. Never a full-fledged member, Ishigami sees the Yakuza as a way to make quick money that he can use to break into legitimate enterprises. But the Yakuza has changed while he’s been away — constant police pressure has led them to excommunicate the more violent factions within their ranks and focus on quieter, more subtle criminal enterprises. To that end, Ishigami joins forces with young up-and-comer Yuki to run phone scams on unsuspecting citizens. Realizing that they don’t have enough data to zero in on potential victims, Ishigami calls on Jung-hi, a Korean ex-pat who helps immigrants find work, legal or otherwise, to get more robust data packages scraped from discarded cell phones. It’s a distinctly 21st-century enterprise, a long way from the ferocious bloodbaths of something like Battles Without Honor and Humanity, and the money starts rolling in hand over fist. Soon enough, Ishigami is laundering cash through real estate deals and investing in dot-com startups and venture capital funds.
Shot mostly in shaky handheld, with a muted palette drained of color and a shallow depth of field that tends to surround characters in blurry smears of light a la Michael Mann, Kojima organizes a huge amount of information in Joint. But after a propulsive first half, where we are walked through various schemes and rivalries in exacting detail, the film gradually loses its bearings. There’s just too much plot: a clan of former Yakuza members decides to go back to the old, violent ways, police be damned, and begin a turf war. Meanwhile, Ishigami begins distancing himself from both Yuki and Jung-hi in an attempt to go fully legit, alienating both of them in the process. And yet another rival organization is introduced, the Ryudo, composed of various immigrant groups who have been shunned by traditional organized crime, and who have their own uses for the data packets that Ishigami has been peddling. In fact, there’s an entire subplot about the police officers monitoring the various clans which dropped almost as soon as it’s introduced, and numerous characters pop up in a scene or two only to then disappear for large swaths of the film. There are numerous scenes of Ishigami working with the startup that he’s invested in, until potential investors learn about his criminal record and start threatening to withhold future funding. It all just eventually amounts to too much, the narrative becoming more and more fractured and slackening when it should be throttling up. Eventually, a friend is killed and Ishigami has to decide just how far outside the law he’s willing to go for revenge. There’s a fascinating thread here about the intersection between illicit and legitimate business, and how both are built on harvesting the same information, but it too gets lost amid the shuffle. It might be a brave new world, but Joint disappointingly ends with the same old questions about honor among thieves and avenging fallen brothers.
Writer: Daniel Gorman
Last of the Wolves
While fellow 2021 NYAFF entry Joint admirably (if ultimately unsuccessfully) attempts to reconfigure the Yakuza picture for a modern, 21st-century audience, Kazuya Shiraishi’s Last of the Wolves does the exact opposite, taking the fundamental scenario of Fukasaku’s classic Graveyard of Honor and the Battles Without Honor and Humanity series and ramping them up with contemporary cinematography and rapid-fire editing. There’s no interest in interrogating a genre here, instead an unabashed adherence to it, content to scribble within familiar lines. A direct sequel to 2018’s The Blood of Wolves, Last picks up three years later in 1991, as the tentative truce between the Odani and Jinsei clans has held steady. Hiroshima police officer Shuichi Hioka (Tori Matsuzaka), one time apprentice to the now deceased Shogo Ogami, keeps tabs on the gangs and runs an undercover informant named Chinta who feeds him intel. More interested in real estate deals than brawls, the various Yakuza clan elders have settled down and kept the tenuous peace (shades of Joint yet again). Into this relative calm comes Uebayashi (Suzuki Ryohei), a Yakuza foot soldier just released from prison who wants revenge against both clans for the death of his boss, Itako. Unbeknownst to Uebayashi is that, three years ago, Hioka and Ogami facilitated the extra-judicial killing of Itako as the price of brokering peace between the various factions. And so the two enter into a collision course, with a mountain of collateral damage left in their wake.
This is an extremely streamlined version of an expansive narrative that unfolds over almost 145 minutes. There’s a huge number of ancillary characters, and screenwriter Ikegami Junya, working from Yuko Yuzuki’s 2015 novel, indulges in all manner of flashbacks and table-setting scenes. Uebayashi is essentially Heath Ledger’s Joker dropped into the middle of a classic crime saga, refusing to play by any rules and murdering at will. There’s no honor among thieves here, as he mercilessly climbs the clan hierarchy and taunts the police. It’s an outstanding performance by Ryohei, whose volatile energy infuses the film’s bloated runtime with a dangerous edge. As Uebayashi attempts to incite war, Hioka scrambles to keep the peace, forcing young Chinta into increasingly dangerous situations as he frantically tries to keep tabs on Uebayashi. But there’s too much filler here, including bits about Chinta’s sister, who runs a bar frequented by gangsters, Hioka’s older partner (who doesn’t approve of Hioka’s reckless style), as well as some out-of-left-field twists involving secretive factions within the police force itself. Last of the Wolves features plenty of brawls and shootouts, but nothing fans of the genre haven’t seen before. It’s occasionally startlingly violent – Uebayashi likes to remove his victim’s eyeballs after (and in one instance before) killing them. Inevitably, the bloodshed leads to a final confrontation between cop and gangster, as well as some handwringing over the thin blue line and how cops and gangsters are sometimes the opposite sides of the same coin — all hallmarks of the genre, and all dutifully reproduced here. Fans keeping track of modern day Japanese gangster epics might get a kick out of both Joint and Last of the Wolves, but anyone else is likely to be frustrated. Everything old is new again, apparently.
Writer: Daniel Gorman
A tepid sense of familiarity sets in while watching Glenn Chan’s feature debut Shadows. From its cold-open introductory murder to the perfunctory psychiatrist on a lecture circuit scene, everything feels a little too familiar here, even when contextualized within its psychological thriller genre which rests, no doubt, on tried and true staples of unreliable narrators and twist reveals. Like the referential mishmash of the recent Fear Street films, Shadows starts to feel like an imitation of an imitation (albeit one without the self-aware intentionality), and while it may be competently shot, paced, and acted, its Hannibal-style mind games and dated preoccupations with mental illness are bereft of ingenuity or freshness, resembling a lost network pilot from around the time Bryan Fuller’s television series was still on the air rather than a robust feature film in its own right.
After bearing witness to the aftermath of a grizzly murder, we are introduced to forensic psychiatrist Dr. Tsui Hiu Ching (Stephy Tang) as she treats a patient with a stylishly expressive array of psychic powers. Through slick slow-mo transitions accentuated by Oliver Lau’s cinematography, we are whisked away into her patient’s subconscious to recreate fragments of the past which play like a mix of the surreal dream psychiatry of The Cell and the Sherlockian crime scene reenactments of Hannibal. This opening bit with its visual pyrotechnics, at once technically competent yet thoroughly uninspired, hints at a recurring problem with the film. Take, for example, the subsequent introduction of Officer Ho (Philip Keung), a well-meaning if somewhat brash detective who plays by his own set of rules, or the apparently malevolent Dr. Yan Chung Kwong (Tese Kwan Ho) with his Hannibal-esque poise and charm. The solid performances from the supporting cast can only take these two-dimensional archetypes so far.
It doesn’t help that the remainder of the film is a minefield of thriller clichés ranging from suspicious revelations about Tsui’s past, the emergence of mutilated corpse tableaus, as well as Yan’s Hobbesian monologuing which is bluntly and obviously juxtaposed with Tsui’s faith in the goodness of humanity. None of these tired script elements are intrinsically off-putting, but the accumulation of tropes spread over the film’s runtime starts to exhaust by its end. The somewhat bumpy production history can help explain this lack of a distinct vision. An interview with film news outlet Sinema reveals that Chan, with his multifaceted background in Singaporean television, was slated to serve as DP on the film when the original director dropped out. Further complicating matters, the story’s setting was changed from Singapore to Hong Kong, not just pulling away cultural specificity but also creating a language and cultural barrier between Chan, who describes his Cantonese as limited, and the Hong Kong-based film crew. The extent to which these roadblocks hinder the end result is unclear, but ultimately what’s left is a by-the-numbers potboiler that can hold your attention for 90 minutes, but lacks the sense of personality, urgency, or surprise of its myriad influences.
Writer: Igor Fishman
My Missing Valentine
Chen Yu-hsun’s My Missing Valentine swept the 2020 Golden Horse Awards, winning Best Picture, Director, Original Screenplay, Editing, and Visual Effects out of a total of eleven nominations. I don’t want to say this is entirely because the once prestigious Taiwan-based festival, for decades the gold standard for Chinese language cinema, has found its stature greatly diminished of late after a winner used their speech to advocate for Taiwanese independence, leading to a denouncement by the PRC; consequently, no one who wants to see their film distributed in Mainland China, which includes most Hong Kong and Chinese filmmakers, has submitted to the festival for the past few years, leaving the field almost entirely free of competition for Taiwanese films. But that’s also probably the case.
Which is not to say that My Missing Valentine isn’t a good film. It is indeed a fine romantic comedy of the high concept variety, along the lines of Su Lun’s 2018 How Long Will I Love U? or the various versions of the Korean hit Il Mare (remade in the U.S. as The Lake House). A woman, who all her life has been slightly too fast for the world around her, wakes up to find she has completely lost 24 hours. She has no memory of what happened to her on Valentine’s Day. Flashbacks give us the lead-up to the event: her lonely life and job at the post office, the cute dance instructor she meets and maybe starts to date, the odd customer who very slowly buys a stamp from her and mails a letter every day. The big day arrives and the story stops, we rewind and tell the story of a man who all his life has been slightly too slow for the world around him (a montage cleverly juxtaposes the two leads’ temporal conditions: singing off the beat, starting too fast or too slow in races, laughing at the wrong moments in a movie theater). He seems to be in love with the woman, but never talks to her. She doesn’t remember him. On Valentine’s, he doesn’t lose a day, but instead gains one: while the rest of the world has stopped, he’s free to do what he will. So he takes the object of his affection, frozen in time, to the beach. It’s not entirely creepy, but it is a little bit.
A darker edge is what one might have expected from director Chen. His last feature, 2017’s The Village of No Return, was a clever film about coercion and erasure of collective memory that seemed to parody the entirety of 20th-century Chinese history while also steeped in goofy period farce replete with kung fu, bandits, a mail carrier, and Shu Qi. At times, My Missing Valentine seems poised to approach the deeper concerns of the earlier film, touching on lonely people who find themselves desperately out of step with the world around them. Instead, Chen appears content with resting on the pop confectionary nature of the genre, relying on weird and charming absurdities like an anthropomorphic gecko who lives in the woman’s closet or a sappy DJ who appears on her walls when she listens to the radio. And it is charming, and even a little moving (especially in a brief scene with the woman’s father near the end of the film, another man out of time). But it mostly made me think about the postal system in Taiwan and how the U.S. really needs to adopt postal banking (and insurance) as well, to make such services available to more people outside of the profit incentives of major corporations.
Writer: Sean Gilman
The Fable: The Killer Who Doesn’t Kill
In its opening moments, The Fable: The Killer Who Doesn’t Kill immediately establishes what Akira Sato (Junichi Okada), the assassin FKA Fable, can do and, better, what kind of action the film is capable of. After members of a prostitution ring are killed off by the silent, unseen assassin, Sato nearly botches his final hit when he notices a teenage girl in the backseat of his dead target’s car. The dead man’s foot hits the pedal and Sato leaps onto the car, holding onto the vehicle as it careens around the parking garage before Sato attempts to rescue the girl in midair. It’s an exciting sequence with good stunt work — you get the impression that Sato works in a ski mask for the sake of hiding Okada’s stunt double as much as its narrative purpose — which sets the table for The Fable’s plot, but also for unrealistic expectations with regards to its content. Given the quality of its action, Kan Eguchi’s film is curiously light on it, bookended by showstoppers but unable to capture dramatic interest in the overlong stretch between them.
Four years later, Sato is semi-retired and in hiding, working at a small design shop. The girl he saved, Hinako (Yurina Hirate), is now wheelchair-bound in the company of a gangster, Utsubo (Shinich Tsutsumi), who poses as the head of a children’s non-profit. Utsubo is hunting for the legendary assassin Fable, who killed his whole gang, setting him on a collision course with Sato. For nearly an hour and a half, the two men circle each other, Sato tries to form a bond with Hinako, secretly hoping to make amends for the disability he caused, while Utsubo slowly discovers his identity and moves his pieces into place for a showdown. There’s not much here and the pace is much too slow for such simple material. There’s a brief fistfight or two and some rote crime movie business, but most of the movie is dedicated to dialogue scenes of familiar table-setting. Hinako, the emotional core of the film, gets the best scenes in the movie as her interactions with Sato are moving and her manipulation by Utsubo frightening, but even her arc grows repetitive over time, forced to repeat the same notes to advance the moribund plot.
The inertia eventually pays off in the last thirty minutes when The Fable remembers to be an action movie with a pair of great setpieces. The first finds Sato walking into a trap in an apartment complex, as a horde of hired goons with silenced pistols closes in on him from all angles, including the scaffolding alongside the building. In a long, energizing sequence, Sato fights his way out of — and then back into — the building, his gun loaded with non-lethal bullets because of a vow not to kill he made in the last film, the only time this film being a sequel seems to matter. Some of the hand-to-hand combat is shot too close and cut too quickly, but by and large, the inventive staging and frenetic pace of the action overcomes those shortcomings. But this sequence and the suspense piece involving a landmine that closes the film, as good as they are, don’t make up for the long, slack journey to get there. While the finale certainly relies on Hinako’s arc for resonance, both of these scenes would play just as well out of context, without all the drab, boring exposition.
Writer: Chris Mello