Foreign Objects travels the world of international cinema each week to look for films worth visiting. So renew your passport, get your shots, and brush up on the local age of legal consent, this week we’re heading to…
Living in the United States it’s easy to forget that we’re not the only country to offer a better alternative to the lives people are born into. The US/Mexican border is a revolving door where thousands of “tourists” come through on a daily basis. Some come for the fatty fast food, some for the even fattier basic cable, but most are here for the opportunity to take part in the American dream. Japan faced a similar situation in the 1990’s (although they probably called it the Japanese dream) with a steady stream of illegals pouring in from throughout Asia (China, Vietnam, Taiwan, etc). It’s not a topic that has seen much exposure on the silver screen before, but just as he shined a light on Hong Kong’s rough and tumble pirate-filled past in Project A and the effectiveness of inebriation in enhancing your fighting style in Drunken Master II, Jackie Chan has aimed his considerable star power at the world of immigration, the Yakuza, and counterfeit long-distance phone cards.
Shinjuku Incident opens with the dramatic image of a large tanker ship half submerged in the shallows off the coast of Japan. Hundreds of illegal Chinese immigrants swarm in from the water and make a dash up the beach towards safety. Steelhead (Chan) is among them, but unlike the others who are there mainly in the hopes of starting a new life or supporting families back home, he’s in Japan on a more personal quest. His fiance Yuko left China a few years before to visit her aunt with the promise to return, but she never did. Steelhead has come to find her but instead discovers a world foreign to him in more ways than just the obvious. Life in rural China was all about hard, honest work, but here in Tokyo he sees people more accustomed to getting ahead by way of illicit and/or violent means. He also sees his fellow Chinese being mistreated and taken advantage of, and soon Steelhead is combining his desire for fair treatment with the growing allure of unlawful but profitable practices.
Writer/director Derek Yee (Protege, One Nite In Mongkok) uses that basic set-up to explore multiple ideas including the fading concept of national identity, the limits of friendship, and the homogenization of organized crime. More than these though, Yee is interested in the idea of how one good man can so easily be swayed by the addictive elements of power and ambition to do things he never would have considered previously. Steelhead becomes intertwined with the criminal underworld through unavoidable tragedy and poor luck at first, but he quickly sinks even deeper with purely willful intent. His goal of a better life for himself and his countrymen is a noble one, but he’s willing to break more than just immigration laws to achieve it. Theft, deception, and even murder become felonious and blood-soaked stepping stones on his way up. Years pass, but his actions lead to a seemingly inevitable downfall and an epic Yakuza-led assault on Steelhead’s two-story headquarters.
Yee has shown himself capable of combining strong drama and action before, and he continues to showcase that talent here even if it is to a slightly lesser degree. The immigrants have come to Japan for opportunities and in turn have become very opportunistic. They’re sympathetic while we see them being treated harshly, but they grow to treat others just as poorly. It’s an intriguing idea even if Yee’s film doesn’t allow the transition enough time to feel natural. The film does succeed with its (probably unintentional) parallels to the United States’ similar immigration issue with Mexico especially with sentiments like this… A detective is called to chase down some illegals and comments that “It’s the illegal workers who clean the sewers. A Japanese would never do such a dirty job. If his toilet was blocked shit would just pile up to his ass.” The drama behind it all isn’t quite glossed over, but it also isn’t really given its fair due. Instead, events devolve into violence on a somewhat regular basis… happily I’m a huge fan of cinematic violence and Yee portrays it well. From a devastating assault on one of the immigrant’s faces and arm to a full-on siege of a two-story building, the action is exciting and well-paced. It’s the drama that lags behind.
The star here both obviously and surprisingly is Chan. Films like New Police Story have shown that he’s capable of mixing the serious and gritty in with his action, but this role is a completely different beast. He commits to the role of Steelhead with sincerity and truly shows growth in his abilities as well as his openness to new career choices. Chan’s never really been what you would call a great actor, but he’s also never been closer than he is here to being a somewhat good one. Steelhead is a nice guy who flirts more than a little with the bad guy inside of him, and Chan doesn’t shy away from those darker impulses. When’s the last time you saw Chan kill a man in cold blood? And you’ve never seen him grinding away with a white hooker while she rides him cowgirl style… I’m not saying that’s something you’ll want to see of course, just that you will if you watch the movie. (I’m not even entirely convinced that Chan enjoyed doing it…) The rest of the cast is actually quite good with the singular exception of Daniel Wu as Steelhead’s friend Jei. His character arc is fairly severe, but Wu can’t seem to get a grasp on the more extreme reactions.
Shinjuku Incident is far from being Chan’s or Yee’s finest film, but it’s a notable one for both men. For Chan it shows a growing maturity and interest in films that don’t require his body’s trademark fluidity and rapid-fire precision. Chan definitely fights here, but it’s more of a flailing and frenetic self-defense than martial arts mastery. And Yee has found a more relevant and important topic than the world of hitmen and shadowy affairs he’s used to, but he trades in some of his usual style and finesse in favor of making his point. The story may have worked better as a straight immigration drama or as a flat-out action movie, but as it stands Shinjuku Incident is a film of two minds that don’t always gel together. It’s flawed but definitely worth the watch.
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