Smuggler (dir. Katsuhito Ishii, 2011, Japan)
Thank goodness he didn't let me down. Ishii's signature humor is stitched into Smuggler's storyline throughout, but this is w/o doubt Ishii's darkest, most violent film. The brutality hinted in his past works (particularly the anime sequences in Kill Bill and the opener to Party 7) manifest in sharp and extended relief here. While Sharkskin Man… involved a lot of bloodshed and bullets, a good deal of that occurred in the cover of night or was mostly left to the imagination. Not in Smuggler, where yakuza heavy Kawashima (a wildly eyebrowed Masahiro Takashima) smacks crime-world envoy Yamaoka (Yasuko Matsuyuki, varying her outfits across the Gothic Lolita spectrum) in the face, and blood continually flows from her nose as she collects herself and makes a phone-call from him. Nor in the decimation doled out by hyper-villain Vertebrae's (Masanobu Ando, scarred up and sinewy, easily outdoing his crazed Kiriyama role in Battle Royale by like 1000%) nunchucks, as he takes down a room of Yakuza thugs and gangleader (all buddies of Kawashima, incidentally) in bullet-time ultraviolence. Nor, finally, in Kawashima's prolonged torture of Kinuta (Satoshi Tsumabuki, who I recognized as Akemi's BF in Michel Gondry's superior segment of Tokyo!), the out-of-work actor and titular smuggler (as in, smuggling dead bodies, mediated by Yamaoka's company) posing as Vertebrae in a dangerous game of deception.
It's pretty sadistic, but Ishii deftly injects humorous doses throughout, like a particularly funny and tense mad-dogging at the convenience store, run by Ishii regular Yoshiyuki Morishita (Kill Bill-ers will remember him as the graveyard-smiling salary-man who gets gutted by schoolgirl assassin Chiaki Kuriyama), where truckdriver Jo (Ishii regular Masatoshi Nagase, weathered and world-weary here, but still dangerous as a blade), a sort of hesitant mentor for young Kinuta in the world of smuggling, stands down Vertebrae and associate Naizou (uh, "Viscera"?) over who was first at the register. Plus cutie Hikari Mitsushima adds toughness to a mostly male cast, one-upping Yamaoka as mob-wife Chiharu, though she was the one who ordered the hit on her man, which Vertebrae gracefully "executed". Plus Ishii regular Tatsuya Gashuin (in EVERY Ishii film…I think, as twitchy hitmen in Sharkskin Man… and Party 7 and the eccentric old dude in Taste of Tea) is a welcome presence, w/ his love for fried-squid soba and his nuggets of wisdom for Kinuta. Smuggler opens on Oct 22 in Japan.
Two Eyes Staring (dir. Elbert van Strien, 2009, Belgium)
Yakuza Weapon (dirs. Tak Sakaguchi and Yudai Yamaguchi, 2011, Japan)
I had the pleasure of previewing the two new and very strong Sushi Typhoon titles Yakuza Weapon and Karate-Robo Zaborgar (review below) in NYC, though Fantastic Fest was the first time I saw them on the big-screen. Now Yakuza Weapon, the combo directorial effort by Yudai Yamaguchi (participating in upcoming horror anthology The ABCs of Death, and director of Battlefield Baseball and Deadball fame, plus I loved his contribution to Meatball Machine) and Tak Sakaguchi (premiere Japanese schlock-action hero), should be on any action-lover's radar, as it's a very loose followup to Ryuhei Kitamura's underground classic Versus, like Rambo on shabo, that rocketed Sakaguchi onto the scene as consummate ass-kicker. And ass-kicking he does in Yakuza Weapon, bearing the strongest fight choreography of any Sushi Typhoon title to date. We're launched into it via the blitzkrieg opening sequence in the South American jungle, with Shozo (Sakaguchi) systematically dispatching each and every armed thug before heading back to Tokyo. There, he learns his familiar Yakuza world has been shattered by dad's right-hand man Kurawaki (the dapper and unhinged Shingo Tsurumi, one-upping his platinum-coiffed attack-dog persona from Katsuhito Ishii's Sharkskin Man and Peach-hip Girl), and Shozo's confrontation leads to a skyscraper's demolition, plus Shozo in a government medical facility with a cannon on his arm and a rocket launcher in his leg. Cue more ass kicking! The buzzed about 4+ minute one-take fight scene that follows here, where Shozo takes on waves of Kurawaki's henchmen with his fists, feet and eventually cannon and rockets over two levels of the facility is properly, singularly superb. If Oldboy set the tone for video-game-style one-take action via a side-scrolling brawl b/w a hammer-wielding Oh Dae-su and dozens of heavies, Yakuza Weapon throws that into three dimensions, as Yamaguchi maneuvers a hand-held gracefully around whole rooms and up staircases, following the violence. The coup de grace follows in the lithe form of Sumire (Cay Izumi, her athleticism as leader of pole-dance troupe Tokyo Dolores coming into full play here), sister of Shozo's former best bud and current rival Tetsuo. See, Sumire's been engineered w/ the same technology as Shozo, only by the bad guys, turning her into a naked fembot assassin whirling around her brother whilst firing crotch rockets and mouth lasers at Shozo!
Karate-Robo Zaborgar (dir. Noboru Iguchi, 2011, Japan)