Originally based on a hyper violent Japanese manga comic of the same name, Smuggler is the latest from the innovative and strikingly original Katsuhito Ishii and while you may not recognise him immediately, you may have seen some of his insanity a few years ago on SBS; does Shark Skin Man & Peach Hip Girl ring a bell? I was quite excited to find out it was the same director as that gem that stuck out upon first viewing all those years ago, if anything his style has improved ten-fold and Smuggler attests to this. Down on his luck actor Kinuta (Satoshi Tsumabuki) is gambling himself into debt when he is suddenly interrupted and made an offer he can't refuse, to work off his debt and become a smuggler for the Yakuza. Working with the tough talking Joe (Masatoshi Nagase), he joins in cleaning up the visceral remains of a hitman’s victims, this legendary assassin is known as Vertebrae (Masanobu Andô), decimating an entire room with nothing but nunchucks. When Kinuta comes into contact with some of the most dangerous encounters possible, he realizes his full potential and the bizarre use of his acting skills are put to the test in exciting and horrifying ways.
Smuggler is a chameleon, adapting to each scene and genre, constantly tonally shifting as the scenes quickly play out before flying to the next. It is a stylish and kinetic film that demands rewatching, preferably with friends. Its over-the-top manga flourishes impress and entertain and although this is Ishii’s work it bleeds undertones of early Miike (Ichi The Killer’s clean-up scenes) and Sabu (Monday and the protagonist who has had enough). The strange chapter-based narrative grounds the whole thing as each are tied to a specific location and as such everything is easy to follow.Like a thrilling theme park ride Smuggler hurtles forward at break-neck speeds introducing every insane character and utterly absurd violence along the way. Off-the-rails certainly is an understatement.
When the film begins to settle down in the third act, the motives of each player becomes clear and the film changes gears almost entirely and there is a squeamish off-putting and very long scene of torture that may make or break the film for some. My advice is to stick with it, that scene concerns transgression of the protagonist; it is not simply violence for violence-sake.
In fact Smuggler is not another wacky product of Japan, it has a lot to say and not much time to say it, but it is how it says it that matters, and in this respect it is hard to deny that Smuggler is one of the most energetic and unapologetic genre efforts from Japan in a long while that doesn’t just turn to inane mush. Destined for cult status, Smuggler is a must.
[rating=4] and a half
Kwenton Bellette - follow Kwenton Twitter here: @Kwenton
The Madman release of this film is quite standard with the interviews with the key actors standing out as the most interesting and insightful. The making-of rambles and the director at Toronto Film Festival extra is quite superfluous. The DVD shines however with the ultra-bright colour palette of the film no aspect of the presentation is let down.
Smuggler is out now on DVD from Madman entertainment.
Kwenton Bellette is extremely passionate about Asian film and the resurgence of new waves taking place in Korea, Japan and China in the last 10 years. He joined the global site Twitchfilm in 2009, is the artistic director of the Fantastic Asia Film Festival is Melbourne and currently studies a film masters degree at Melbourne University. He is very excited to raise further awareness of the what he thinks is the most exciting film industry in the world.