Fantasia 2012: ‘Smuggler’ Fails to Conceal its Influences

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Smuggler aka  Sumagurâ: Omae no mirai o hakobe

Written by Katsuhito Ishii, Masatoshi Yamaguchi and Kensuke Yamamoto, based on the manga Sumagurâ by Shôhei Manabe

Directed by Katsuhito Ishii

Japan 2011 Fantasia imdb

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

5 Comments
  1. griefmop says

    Yeah. I call bullshit on this review as well.

    “The writers and director of Smuggler clearly watched Ichi the Killer a lot – A LOT – as kids.”

    Umm. Okay, I guess? But Katsuhito Ishii had already directed Tadanobu “Kakihara” Asano in SHARK SKIN MAN AND PEACH HIP GIRL three years before ICHI ever hit the screen. Given that ICHI predates SUMGGLER by only ten years, Ishii must have been really young when he made PEACH HIP GIRL…

    Do your homework before you post a sloppy review like this one please.

  2. emily says

    So, I was happy to see fellow commenters who easily discerned this review as crap. As someone who actually watches foreign films, this film ranked in the top 10 for many reasons. The first captivating element is the musical score Accompanied by a beautiful opening sequence with the smuggler vehicle and kinuta coupling noire and good cinematography. The fighting sequences were dramatic and tightly edited for some of the coolest hand to hand choreography I havr ever seen with no small help from madanobu ando who I think displays masterful and graceful rage just like big bang love, juvenile a. Kinuta’s development through his relationships with nagase and ando is captured profoundly in great directorial touches like the world clearing and becoming brighter when nagase offers his hand as a first gesture of friendship after their cover is nearly blown. This reminded me a bit of ishii’s taste of tea kind of moments. I could go on and on.

  3. googergieger says

    Was a joke, man. Clearly. I mean it was followed with a, “to be fair”. I guess I could have followed it with a, “no seriously” but this isn’t a Dean Martin roast.

  4. Michael Ryan says

    We will have to agree to disagree about Ichi the Killer and Smuggler, but I can’t let you get away with this: “Really though, watch more than five foreign films in your life?”

    I’ve WRITTEN five reviews of non-English films just in this year’s Fantasia Film Festival alone: Smuggler, Dragon, For Love’s Sake, The Kick and Black’s Game

    Since four of those reviews got posted on the same day, they were linked on the same page on the right when you were making that ridiculous comment.

  5. googergieger says

    You actually believe Ichi The Killer wasn’t a total mess of a movie? I love Takashi Miike. Ichi The Killer is one of his worst films to date, because it really isn’t a film. It is being dropped in the middle of a story without ever getting a beginning or end. These are the people. This is what they do. That is all.

    I really want to see Smuggler and hope we get it out on dvd soon. It looks to be like Ishi’s first two films. Sharkskin Man and Peach Hip Girl, and Party 7. Manga’s brought to life and such. (You should watch both)

    Really though, watch more than five foreign films in your life? To be fair I haven’t seen this movie though, so who knows. Then again you fault Smuggler for things Ichi The Killer was guilty of. Except you know, apparently Smuggler actually had a story.

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