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The excellently titled “Hard Romanticker” takes a (very) violent look at the Zainichi (Korean-Japanese) criminal underworld and youth gang battles, with popular actor Matsuda Shota, known for hit television shows like “Boys over Flowers” undergoing a dramatic image change as a particularly vicious, though charismatic brute. The film was written and directed by Gu Su Yeon, himself a Japanese citizen of Korean ancestry, and was based on his own semi-autobiographical novel about his younger years, which if even only half true probably makes him a pretty tough character. Though it sticks to some of the same themes as Gu’s early outings such as the comedy “The Yakiniku Movie: Bulgogi”, the film shows a marked change in content and style, heading into far darker territory.
The film is set in Shimonoseki, a Japanese city with a high Korean ethnic mix, with Matsuda Shota as Gu, a fearless young hoodlum who spends his days hustling and trying to survive on the mean streets, generally managing to rub all the other criminals up the wrong way in the process. His life becomes considerably more complicated, not to mention dangerous after two of his comrades accidentally murder the grandmother of a North Korean gang leader Park (Kaname Endo, also in Takashi Miike’s “Crows Zero” films) as a result of mistakenly having taken his advice. Gu himself makes matters worse by severely beating Park’s brother, and ends up a wanted man, with other gangsters also after his blood for a variety of reasons and a persistent detective (Atsuro Watabe, “Love Exposure”) pressuring him. Despite finding a new life after being given a job managing a hostess club by a suave Yakuza called Takagi (Shido Nakamura, who also featured in John Woo’s epic “Red Cliff”), Gu is soon dragged back into the underbelly of Shimonoseki, with his many enemies closing in and a happy ending looking unlikely.
“Hard Romanticker” really is an assault on the senses and a swift punch to the gut, Gu Su Yeon cutting loose and serving up a fast paced and hardcore tribute to the kind of rough, tough crime films being made by Japan back in the 1970s. The film is violent and bloody throughout, with an exceptionally high number of beatings, stabbings, burnings, murders and so forth, all of which are made more shocking by the casual, laidback manner in which they are presented, brutality and cruelty being accepted as simply part of life. At the same time, the film also shows a misogynistic streak a mile wide, with almost every female cast member being stripped, abused or raped at some point in the proceedings, and whether or not this is a reflection of the harsh reality, it does make things distasteful and hard going at times.
The film sets itself apart from other Japanese youth gang cinema outings like “Crows Zero” by featuring an unsympathetic cast of characters, very few of whom exhibit any decent qualities or hints of humanity, Gu painting a bleak, dog eat dog picture throughout. This is personified by his alter ego protagonist Gu, who despite being sort of quirky, charming and possessed of pretty boy looks, is a nasty piece of work indeed, amoral, prone to random and psychotic violence, and no less unpleasant to women than the rest of the male cast – saving a girl from rape in one scene, then callously assaulting a different girl later in the film. To a large extent, Matsuda Shota holds the film together with his stunning performance as Gu, perhaps drawing inspiration from his late father Yusaku, a half-Korean actor who actually starred in many violent crime dramas in the 1970s. Shota is on excellent form, and though it would have been too much of a stretch to make Gu likeable, his ruthless yet oddly amiable turn is utterly compelling.
While all of this might sound terribly dark and horrific, the film is surprisingly funny, with a marked line in dark humour throughout and a strangely upbeat jazz score from Kaoru Wada. The film’s languid approach to its violence is at times very amusing in spite of its savagery, and once the viewer becomes accustomed to seeing people getting bludgeoned or whacked with iron bars at random, it does all become quite comical and surreal. Gu’s direction is both stylish and gritty, and this too gives the film a different feel to other similarly themed efforts like the “Crows Zero” series, with an offbeat, almost beatnik vibe at times.
Though it might well alienate some viewers with its matter of fact ferociousness and mistreatment of women, “Hard Romanticker” is definitely the best youth violence film from Japan in recent years. Boosted by a welcome eccentricity and coffin black sense of humour, it’s a spirited, kinetic film, with assured directon from Gu Su Yeon and a revelatory turn from Matsuda Shota , and viewers who like this kind of thing should find themselves very happy indeed.
Su-yeon Gu (director) / Su-yeon Gu(screenplay)
CAST: Shôta Matsuda … Goo
Kento Nagayama … Tatsu
Tokio Emoto … Masaru
Sei Ashina … Natsuko
Kaname Endô … Pak
Yûya Endô … Kim