Written by Katsuhito Ishii, Masatoshi Yamaguchi and Kensuke Yamamoto, based on the manga Sumagurâ by Shôhei Manabe
Directed by Katsuhito Ishii
The writers and director of Smuggler clearly watched Ichi the Killer a lot – A LOT – as kids. It’s all there: the yakuza setting, the gang war, the eccentric characters, the torture, the weird unsettling pacing, the killer who feels like he infiltrated the film from some other cinematic universe.
The difference is that nothing works as well as Ichi. Every time the film quotes Ichi, we are reminded that this film isn’t quite as good as the original. The eccentricities come across as forced, the pacing feels like a car repeatedly back-firing rather than a dangerous roller-coaster, the killer just seems out of place rather than being transgressive, and the torture becomes irritating rather than unsettling.
The best part of Smuggler are the original elements: Kinuta (Satoshi Tsumabuki) is a slacker who passively allows himself to be manipulated into owing loan shark Yuki (Yasuko Matsuyuki) a massive debt, which leads to being assigned as the junior man in a three team truck of body smugglers – cleaning up the mess created by the team of assassins Viscera and Vertebrae (Masanobu Andô) who work for a Chinese gang feuding with the yakuza. (Vertebrae is so named because of his scars and a series of metal protrusions grafted on to his spine.)
The intent is clearly to show the full cycle of a gang war from violent murder to clean up, like a Japanese version of The Cook, the Thief, His Wife, and Her Lover – and Smuggler would have benefitted from stealing Peter Greenaway’s film as digestion structure. The problem is that we are much more interested in the cleaners, Kinuta and Joe (Masatoshi Nagase) than we are in Viscera and Vertebrae’s manga version of Mr. Kidd and Mr. Wint.
Partly this is because Joe and Kinuta feel like real human characters, while Viscera and Vertebrae feel like distorted manga caricatures. This is not helped by the pacing of their fight scenes which are in exaggerated slow-motion. It feels like Katshito Ishii was trying to recreate the panel pacing from the original manga. The problem with that is that manga, like all comic books, relies on a pacing created by the reader who can read (and reread) an action sequence as quickly or slowly as he or she likes. Reading comic books or manga is a collaborative process between the creator and the reader. It is democratic; films are more dictatorial. I don’t really care how Katshito Ishii reads manga. (I suspect if I was reading over his shoulder, it would drive me crazy how slowly he reads though.) What I do care about is what I see on the screen and the universe of the killers is poorly paced, ridiculously broad and ultimately hollow.
Not so the universe of the cleaners. Joe is a weary veteran of the Yakuza wars. He and his squid loving partner, while hazing the rookie Kinuta, also encourage him to use the skills he developed as an actor before quitting that profession to become a slacker. This teasing actually saves their hides when the trio are stopped by a pair of cops looking for illegal dumping and Kinuta uses a couple of method acting tricks to convince the cops that they are transporting medical waste from epidemic victims… and that Kinuta is infected.
When the worlds of the assassins and the cleaners collide, Kinuta finds himself with the acting challenge of a lifetime: impersonating Vertebrae to the pissed off yakuza and becoming their captive. This leads to a torture scene equal parts brilliant and infuriating. Because the chief yakuza torturer hits Kinuta in the head with a hammer early in the torture – deafening Kinuta – the pretend Vertebrae can’t hear the questions being asked and must endure the torture instead. On one hand, this leads to Kinuta being scarred exactly like Vertebrae, meaning that the more that he is tortured, the more believable Kinuta’s performance is. On the other hand, the torture sequence is too long and too poorly paced. On the gripping hand, my funniest moment in Fantasia this year came during this extended torture sequence when the Japanese torturer started humming the Colonel Bogey March from The Bridge on the River Kwai…
This was hilarious for a number of film geekery reasons: first, that a Japanese gangster was humming a song originally whistled on film by British P.O.W.s in defiance of their Japanese captors, second, that that melody is used for the song “Hitler Has Only Got One Ball” hinting where the torturer was about to turn his attentions, third, the ridiculous army outfit the torturer put on to complement his humming, and finally, that I was virtually the only one in the Hall theatre that found this sequence funny – which only made it that much funnier.
That moment of hilarity aside, Smuggler is a poorly paced, dismally constructed film that wastes three original characters – the cleaners – with a unique story, by drowning them in the morass of a derivative gangster war.
– Michael Ryan