REVIEW: DVD Release: The Shinjuku Incident

Film: The Shinjuku Incident
Release date: 22nd February 2010
Certificate: 18
Running time: 114 mins
Director: Tung-shing Yee
Starring: Jackie Chan, Daniel Wu, Naoto Takenaka, Masaya Kato, Xu Jinglei
Genre: Crime/Drama
Studio: Cine Asia
Format: DVD & Blu-ray
Country: Hong Kong

Jackie Chan takes his biggest step outside his comfort zone in this bleak crime fable with an arresting socio-political subtext. How does the undisputed king of action-comedy fare in this stripped down, character-driven drama?

To escape the poverty of rural China in the early 1990s, tractor mechanic ‘Steelhead’ (Chan) makes for Japan, which he enters illegally by sea with scores of other desperate Chinese.

Narrowly escaping the police, Steelhead arrives in the Shinjuku district of Tokyo, where he is accepted into the Chinese ex-pat community, and forges a friendship with Jie (Wu) - a well-intentioned younger man with a habit of making destructively bad decisions.

Steelhead wants nothing more than to earn a living and be reunited with his fiancée, Xiu Xiu (Jinglei), but the dual discovery that opportunities are scarce and that Xiu Xiu is now the wife of Yakuza boss Eguchi (Kato) nudge the weary and desperate immigrant towards a life of crime.

Before long, Steelhead finds himself mired in a web of violence and betrayal, caught in not only the crossfire of a Yakuza power struggle, but also of his own internal war - how to remain an honourable man in the face of such ruthless and deadly enemies? And can crime be excused if one seeks only to look after one’s community?

About twenty minutes into The Shinjuku Incident, the film sets up a scenario we’ve seen before - dozens of times. Jackie Chan - playing an ‘everyman hero’ - happens to be in the right place at the right time as an innocent is set upon by baddies or thugs. Never one to stand by, Jackie runs to the rescue, using an inanimate object that happens to be to hand (in this case a conveniently placed stick). But where Jackie’s everyman hero should twirl and whirl said stick with ruthless, athletic grace, he simply swings it chaotically, never making contact. In place of the actor’s lifetime of training is the crude, desperate action of an unskilled ordinary man who masks his own fear with frenzied aggression, hoping to scare off his opponent before he has to inflict or receive any physical damage. He even calls out for help. If audiences had not cottoned on before this scene, it now becomes very clear: this is not a ‘typical’ Jackie Chan film.

Jackie Chan’s is one of the most carefully managed and scrupulously maintained cinematic personas of this, or any other, era. We take as given that Jackie’s character - who will often be called ‘Jackie’ or, in his earlier Hong Kong days, ‘Ah Lung’ (playing on his Cantonese stage name ‘Sing Lung’, ‘Lung’ meaning ‘Dragon’) - is an honourable man, who does not back down from a challenge; we know that ‘Jackie’ will use - often stylised, spectacular - violence to right a wrong, but we know that minimal blood will be spilled, and that any gunshots fired will almost certainly miss before the guns are flung aside in favour of fists and feet. In perhaps no career in any country’s cinema has one man shown such a keen awareness of his audience (the paucity of love - or even kissing - scenes in Chan’s filmography was almost necessitated by the extreme reactions of his female fans, with one Japanese woman committing suicide upon learning of his real-life marriage to a Taiwanese actress), and such reluctance to unsettle them (the list of ‘risky’ projects turned down by Chan include the gay love interest of Leslie Cheung in Farwell, My Concubine, and the historically controversial figure of China’s First Emperor in Zhang Yimou’s Hero). Any revision of this persona has instant cinematic impact, from the older brother of a mentally ill man struggling with his responsibilities in 1985’s Heart Of The Dragon, through to the alcoholic detective in 2004’s New Police Story. But even those characters contained the key, comforting ‘Jackie-isms’ - the fighting ability, and the indomitable spirit, dormant but retrievable upon the plot’s demand. The Shinjuku Incident’s Steelhead shares only a desire to be good with the basic Jackie Chan template. In every other respect, this is brand new territory for the leading man.

And he does rather a fine job in it, too. Having made his name in popular Hong Kong cinema - which, by definition, required a very expressive style of acting - Chan perhaps does not have the career’s worth of experience to draw on in order to convey his character’s inner turmoil and existential malaise with particular subtlety. So he does what he has always done - rely on his connection with an audience. Chan’s face - handsome, off-set by a pug nose that was the butt of so many easy script jokes in his early career, and almost as flexible as the rest of him - has always been the most effective weapon in his acting arsenal; but where he once mugged incessantly in aid of conveying physical pain or comedic angst, he now casts off once and for all his typical boyishness, and lets all the weariness of late middle age show. It is almost as though Chan is no longer pretending that nearly forty years of action scenes, blown stunts and broken bones haven’t taken their toll. Director Derek Yee underlines, perhaps for the first time, just how fascinating Chan’s looks have become with age, and the actor seems to relish the more subdued, restrained style of acting. Gone is the showy wailing of New Police Story, and in its place is a quiet (in)dignity which, though perhaps not as subtle as a Tony Leung may have managed, is all the more impressive for being so unexpected.

Of course, there is more going on in The Shinjuku Incident than Jackie Chan stepping outside his comfort zone. Much more, in fact. So what of the rest of the film? Almost frustratingly, the script contains little to match the surprise of its central performance, steaming through gangland movie clichés at a rate of knots. What starts as an intriguingly slow-burn insight into the illegal immigrant communities in Japan soon overburdens itself with the web of deceit and power plays within the Tokyo underworld that is at first only tangentially connected to the emotional story at its heart. The central characters all have compelling relationships with each other (Steelhead is employed by, and eventually grows to like and respect the Yakuza boss now married to the girl he came to find), and arcs ripe with dramatic potential (Jie’s reaction to humiliation and mutilation in a gangland incident is to take up with drug-dealing, nihilistic cyberpunks), but the filmmakers too often pull their punches when it really matters. Despite several scenarios that feel fresh and new, the characters ultimately make the same old choices when it really matters.

Yee’s film simply spreads itself too thinly - its socio-political character study at war with its commercially desirable gangland thriller plot. The script’s wealth of character arcs and subplots - Steelhead’s lost love, his friendship with a weary-yet-idealistic cop (Takenaka), Jie’s struggle to assert himself in a world run by ruthless men - suggests a sprawling epic story crammed into a running time of just under two hours. Indeed, as characters make story-turning decisions that occasionally have insufficient build-up, the film sometimes plays like a three hour epic that’s been hastily edited. Ultimately, the characters are shepherded to a chaotic finale that feels like a quick-fix to a script that got out of control - its conclusion unsettlingly abrupt. It’s a measure of how the film eventually disengages its audience that the fact the plot’s resolution centres on a glaringly anachronistic detail becomes impossible to overlook, regardless of our emotional connection to the characters.

A nice change of pace for its star, and a well-made crime drama in its own right. Even if it does not ascend to the level to which it aspires, The Shinjuku Incident is still a mostly compelling piece of Asian cinema that touches on an issue perhaps unfamiliar to overseas audiences. JN

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