Directed by Su-yeon Gu
Written by Su-yeon Gu
There are not many nations whose film industries carry as much unabashed violence about them than Japan. Some other countries come close, and virtually all countries at least a few violent films, yet when it comes to the Japanese, well, they simply take the cake. On occasion this is due to their reliance on the fantastical, which somehow gives them carte blanche to create the most far-fetched, gory scenarios possible. One need only refer to Takashi Miike’s cult classic Ichi the Killer as a prime example. Other examples are what cinefiles would describe as more ‘hard core.’ These films are based in reality (while not necessarily being completely realistic), thus making the violence a little more discomforting, a little more gut wrenching. Su-yeon Gu’s film, Hard Romantciker, firmly stands in the latter category and has no qualms about making it as clear as daylight for everyone.
Gu (Shôta Matsuda) is a low level but extremely volatile and audacious young gangster. His implication with gang related hits and the ongoing rivalry between factions quickly builds into something that takes over the landscape over the course of the film. The movie opens with Gu having to flee a small band of attackers, among them Masaru (Tokio Emoto), who, for reasons unknown at this point, wants nothing more than to smash Gu’s head in. Gu manages to escape what looks like inevitable death, with the story subsequently heading into the past to reveal what exactly led Gu to this stage in his life where so many people long to see him buried six feet under. It turns out that Gu has not been the most obedient of gangsters, mouthing off more than he should, as well as kicking, punching, and bruising a few skulls too many when situations did not exactly require such brute force. One of the victims of a brutal beating was Masaru’s younger brother, hence why that particular punk is hunting Gu down. His actions prove to be the bane of many nefarious individuals, and pretty soon a whole ton of people are looking for him. He temporarily finds refuge by working as a night club manager for one Takagi (Shido Nakamura), all the while the snarky, conniving detective Fujita (Atsuro Watabe) is trying to get information as to what is going down. Gu can only remain safe for so long however.
Hard Romanticker is a very peculiar film to review. It certainly is not clamouring for a legion of fans, not with the sort of physical and mental abuse suffered by countless characters. What puts it at an additional disadvantage is its clumsiness in contextualizing many of the events, time frames and despicable people the viewers shall encounter along the way. It was actually somewhat difficult to understand that ten minutes or so into the picture the story had shifted into the past to start telling the story of how Gu began ticking off so many rival gang members. One should not discount either the fact that so many faces and names are tossed around like hot cakes from the very get go, that when the climax approaches, it is tricky to memorize who is who. All of these issues in some ways plague Su-yeon Gu’s film, preventing some audience members from ever getting fully enveloped in the story.
That being said, if one is open to the concept the director is proposing, Hard Romanticker can still manage to elicit a great many reactions. Its flaws, of there are at least a handful, can be viewed as unorthodox positives. Take example the incalculable amount of characters Gu crosses paths with (and occasionally insults and beats into submission). Indeed, there are too many for the picture’s good on a very basic ‘plot based’ level, yet at the same time the sheer volume of people Gu manages to irk, often willingly, speaks to the wide apparatus that is the mob world in Japan. Japanese and Korean gangsters hate each other and members of each side seem to lurk just about every street corner. Just as the picture is messy in presentation all of them, it proves how messy and wide scale their universe is. The violent intermingling between the two means each is a constant threat to the other, and so when loose cannons the likes of Gu mess around with the extremely tenuous calm, things unravel at an alarming rate. Word travels at the speed of light, resulting in a shocking up-rise in violent behaviour, which incidentally enough causes the protagonist himself to give in to less than desirable inhibitions. Violence on one half produces violence by the other, and so on and so forth. It is admittedly a little strange to view the film as such given how it would be nice if things had been made just a little clearer on the surface, but the snowball effect, at least as an effect, is impressive.
Which the discussion to the film’s level of violence and mixed tone. Hard Romanticker recognizes that the concept of the story is ridiculous. It never embraces the ridicule to the extent that it becomes an outright farce, although it is a challenge to suppress one’s laughter at times. Some moments are, indeed, played for sheer comedy, many of them being unexpected visual cues, while various other moments are funny…because of the surprises factor. The character of Gu, played with an impressive mixture of aloofness and bold force by Shôta Matsuda, is unpredictable. He wants to be suave in his own idiosyncratic way, which understandably turns a fair amount of people off. He is equally determined in demonstrating that nothing phases him, which sees him fall into the trap of resorting violence too early. As cool as he tries to play things, he simply is not a intelligent as he assumes himself to be, which also works as comedy. Juxtaposed against the funnier moments is the shock value, and what shock value there is. Violence in monster and ghost films is one thing, but brutal violence against men, woman, the elderly and teens in a film which is reasonably grounded in reality is entirely different. This is not PG-13 material, but rather hard R.
Su-yeon Gu’s Hard Romanticker is not the greatest entry in the gangster genre, although some moments will be etched in viewers’ memory. Shôta Matsuda, while not playing a genuinely charismatic individual, does give Gu an energy which suits the picture, as do many of the supporting players like the fantastic Shido Nakamura (who had a big role in Clint Eastwood’s Letters From Iwo Jima). Far from perfect, Hard Romanticker gets some the essentials down pat…and down for the count!
– Edgar Chaput