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Fantastic Fest Review: K-20: The Fiend with 20 Faces

By  · Published on September 27th, 2009

America does not have the monopoly on superhero films. They exist and thrive on multiple continents with the same varying degrees of quality that we see in our domestic fare. But what is interesting about the international superhero films is that they often borrow quite heavily from American entries. There are exceptions, Mirageman from Chile and Miike’s Zebraman feel wholly original. China has given us Dragon Tiger Gate which is so inspired by American Marvel films that it even opens with animated pages flipping wildly into exposition and the whole film features purple and blue overtones. India tried its hand with Mercury Man which feels somewhat like an American film but only in bits and pieces. And now we have K-20: The Fiend with 20 Faces from Japan to add to the mix.

K-20 takes place in Japan in the 1930’s from an alternate history. WWII never occurred and Japan has become a dystopian society wherein class structure is guarded with military strength. Occupations and breeding have become regulated; free will reduced to near extinction. The upper class, ultimately the ruling class, is convinced of their superiority and of the infallibility of their new world order. But when a masked thief begins stealing priceless pieces of art, jewels, and dangerous machinery the upper echelon begins to once again experience fear. He is called K-20 because it is said that he has 20 faces; a testament to his mastery of disguise. (JLA Narrator Voice) Meanwhile, at a circus across town, an astounding acrobat wows the lower classes and distracts them from their miserable lives. He is hired by a mysterious man to photograph the engagement of a duchess to a local, hero detective. Things go horribly wrong when the young man is mistaken for K-20 and becomes public enemy number one. He decides to train in the art of theivery in order to take on and bring down this knave who cripples Japan in fear.

This film clearly wants to be an American superhero film, but not in the way I expected. It seems to be channeling the campy, period superhero films of the 1990’s and most notably The Shadow. It applies a similar pulp novel, art-decco aesthetic to the city and there is also a commonality in the way it reverently spotlights technology; one of Tesla’s invention being key to the villain’s plan. I also enjoyed the villain’s creepy, echoy laughter that announced his arrival (again reminiscent of The Shadow). There are also hints of Batman Begins and even a touch of Sam Raimi. There are moments of intentional silliness during the hero’s rise that are spot-on impersonations of Raimi’s little touches in Spider-Man. But while it is borrowing from American superhero films, admittedly the more obscure titles in some ways, K-20 does some things that I don’t know that I have ever seen from the genre.

K-20 is not the name of the hero, but the villain, and the movie opens with him already established. The villain is established before the hero and the hero is born out of the necessity to stop him; I can’t think of a single other entry that I’ve ever seen that has done this and that includes the foreign fare. Usually the storyline of the hero’s rise either concludes prior to, or runs congruent with, the villain’s. But in K-20, the only reason this guy wants to be a hero is so he can take down this one bad guy and clear his name. Also, a hero who has completely selfish motives is interesting. We never see this guy save a kitten or punch a mugger in the jaw because all of his time and energy is spent trying to save his own ass. He doesn’t even wear any kind of a mask, or cape, or cowl, or…..paperbag? Actually the whole hero/villain relationship is challenged in K-20. The villain is just as much the dystopian society in which they live as it is K-20 himself. Poverty and class structure are motivations for both hero and villain and ultimately the ending hints at a unification of those motives in a very cool way.

The action sequences in this are a lot of fun. The hero, I keep calling him that because he’s not even given a name, being an acrobat allows for some really fantastic, parkour moments that seemed to be the answer to the question of what it would look like if DC took over the District B-13 franchise. He also has a sweet grappling hook attached to his arm that gives the film a Spider-Man flavor despite defying several laws of physics in the process. I thought the final fight scene between K-20 and the hero was really spectacular and slow motion was applied generously but not in excess. I could even forgive moments of lousy CG because they came, more often than not, in moments of high octane craziness so the stark contrast to reality is altogether negligible. I think my biggest complaint with the film is that it needed more action sequences to justify it’s superfluous runtime.

K-20 is far too long. It needs to be trimmed down like nobody’s business; at least 20 minutes in my estimation. The problem is that you have all these exposition scenes that further explain other exposition scenes that were perfectly clear the first time around. It almost seemed that the film was trying to be as long as it possibly could and sacrificed pacing to achieve that. I have a theory that they might have been of the mindset that the runtime of The Dark Knight somehow factors into its success and they were trying to mimic that here. But the reason The Dark Knight is so long is because it has an epic story to tell and not a single moment of that film is expendable. K-20 on the other hand, well let’s just say it needs a shave. If it tightened up its runtime and replaced redundant plot devices with more action-y moments, this really could have been an all around phenomenal film.

The Upside: Really cool Japanese superhero film that introduces just as many new concepts as it borrows from American titles.

The Downside: An inflated runtime that may have you nodding off in the middle of the film.

On the Side: This is the feature debut for director Shimako Sato, who has made a name for himself directing cinematic sequences for video games.

Longtime FSR columnist, current host of FSR’s Junkfood Cinema podcast. President of the Austin Film Critics Association.