Shinjuku Incident -- Film Review

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HONG KONG -- Set mostly in Tokyo's seamy night-hive Kabuki-cho, Derek Yee's hard-boiled, interracial gangster flick "Shinjuku Incident" -- the opening film 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 overall, the film is somber, gripping and at times achieves an epic sweep as a dark chapter on the Chinese diaspora.

Propped up by an expensive technical package and star-ensemble led by Jackie Chan -- with a fine Japanese supporting cast pitching in -- the film from distributor Emperor Motion Pictures has already sold to major European and Asian territories. The theatrical version has two gory shots cut out; the untouched "festival version" screened under a category III (over 18) rating at HKIFF on Sunday.

Set during the '90s, the film 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 F.O.B.s descends with as much resolute fury as the Allied troops did at Normandy. Washed up among them is Steelhead (Jackie Chan), a Northern Chinese mechanic who's come to find his sweetheart Xiuxiu (Xu Jinglei).

Next, he has found 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 has finally 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 bone-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, which uses Japanese taiko drums sparingly, enhances the mood of hidden menace.

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

Production companies: Emperor Motion Pictures, JCE Entertainment Ltd., JCE Movies
Cast: Jackie Chan, Daniel Wu, Naoto Takenaka, Xu Jinglei, Masaya Kato, Fan Bingbing
Director-screenwriter: Derek Yee
Screenwriter: Chun Tin Nam
Executive producers: Albert Yeung, Jackie Chan
Producer: Willie Chan
Director of photography: Nobuyasu Kita
Production designer: Oliver Wong
Music: Peter Kam
Costume designer: Castillo Angelo Bernardo, Araki Satoe
Editors: Cheung Ka-fai, Kwong Chi-leung, Tang Man To
Sales: Emperor Motion Pictures
No rating, 116 minutes
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