If there’s one lesson to learn from Shinjuku Incident, Derek Yee’s latest gangster epic (after 2004’s One Nite in Mongkok, and 2007’s Protégé), it’s that crime doesn’t pay – even if you’re a deprived Chinese immigrant living in 1990s Japan. And if there’s a second lesson here, it’s that those dark days are long gone, because, well, ‘China’s economy has taken off in the past few years’. (Thanks for the reassurance, ending intertitles.)
A relentlessly bleak saga about the rise and fall of a group of illegal immigrants turned gangsters struggling on the mean streets of Shinjuku, Tokyo, Yee’s new film sees Jackie Chan’s welcome departure from his chopsocky roots: He plays Steelhead, a righteous mainlander who makes the big leap from rural Northeastern China to Japan’s most decadent region, in order to locate his missing girlfriend.
Steelhead, being Jackie Chan, is all about justice and brotherhood, even though he ruthlessly dispatches an innocent guard and a few yakuza leaders on his meteoritic rise to the top of the district’s criminal underworld. The fact that even the noblest of characters can be corrupted is inevitable, if not entirely unanticipated, considering the hostile reality these illegal workers are trapped in. They can only survive by crossing to the other side.
And Yee understands that. Here is a film that has no heroes, only predators and their prey. Instead of glamorising the heroics of its characters, the film sympathises with the fact they are forced by circumstance into becoming criminals in the first place. As Steelhead subsequently looks to expand into legitimate businesses, his buddies – headed by Jie (Daniel Wu in a gut-wrenching performance), a gentle young man destroyed by turf wars – sink ever deeper into the profitable drugs trade, something that Steelhead vigorously disapproves of. Betrayal and mayhem ensue.
That the film failed to get past the Mainland China censors is a blessing in disguise for audiences everywhere. Shinjuku Incident displays a level of grittiness seldom seen in Hong Kong’s increasingly moralistic cinema. It peeks into the abyss and never turns back. As with Yee’s previous crime thrillers, the film delivers visceral shocks with its momentary outbursts of ultra-violence. In fact, they are so gory that the filmmakers had to go back and re-edit a couple of scenes (with shots from different camera angles) in the original category III version to attain the current IIB rating.
While the film breaks more limbs than it does new ground, Shinjuku Incident is pulsating in its dramatic intensity, and indelible in its brutal vision. Dread and desperation hover over all the tragic characters. This is no life to live, yet a life they all lead.
Dir Derek Yee, Category IIB, 120 mins, opens Thursday 2