'Shinjuku Incident'

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Set mostly in Tokyo's seamy night hive Kabuki-cho, Derek Yee's hard-boiled interracial gangster flick "Shinjuku Incident" — the opening-night offering at the 33rd Hong Kong International Film Festival — subscribes to the same nocturnal aesthetic as his "One Nite in Mongkok" but with nastier violence.

Yee's tone seesaws awkwardly between didactic preaching and bleak cynicism about Darwinian human nature, and the film is somber and gripping and at times achieves an epic sweep as a dark chapter on the Chinese diaspora.

Propped up by an expensive technical package and a star ensemble led by Jackie Chan — with a fine Japanese supporting cast pitching in — the film from distributor Emperor Motion Pictures already has sold to major European and Asian territories. Set during the 1990s, it opens in a harbor near Kobe with one of several sweeping crowd scenes that are ably handled by DP Nobuyasu Kita. A shipload of Chinese FOBs descends with as much resolute fury as the Allied troops did at Normandy. Washed up among them is Steelhead (Chan), a Northern Chinese mechanic who has come to find his sweetheart Xiuxiu (Xu Jinglei).

Next, he finds a makeshift asylum in Shinjuku, with hometown pal Jie (Daniel Wu, reprising his naive mainland hick role in "Mongkok") helping him navigate the Chinese ghetto in a dazzling showcase of petty crime that's like Illegal Alien Survival 101.

Initially, the good-hearted Steelhead rescues someone every time he turns a street corner — a black-market laborer, a bar hostess (Fan Bingbing), a cop (Naoto Takenaka), Jie and Xiuxiu's yakuza husband Eguchi (Masaya Kato). However, when Jie becomes the luckless victim of a Taiwan triad boss' wrath, Steelhead throws in his lot with Eguchi to gain a foothold in Shinjuku.

As Steelhead, Chan finally has moved on from his Mr. Nice Guy image to something more hard-edged and morally ambiguous. There are no cues for graceful acrobatic stunts, no heroic showdowns — only sudden spurts of graphic, heart-sickening violence, edited at racy speed to emphasize the viciousness. The finale explodes in a series of chilling betrayals and a grand guignol that is tightly choreographed, delivering a catharsis of sorts.

Black is the dominant color scheme, but night scenes are lighted with a mellow sheen that jazzes up the gritty backdrop. Peter Kam's brooding score enhances the mood of hidden menace.

Wu, the second male lead, never looks the part of a humble, uneducated mainlander. His personality and wardrobe changes also happen rather abruptly. Chan's love interests, Xu and Fan, are underwritten, and Takenaka has a limited appearance as the cop who becomes uneasy friends with Steelhead, but he contributes enough dry humor as well as weightiness. (partialdiff)
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