No simple return to the bread-and-butter crime thrillers that made a name for Japanese writer-director Sabu, Mr. Long (Ryu san) is an unmixed cocktail of a film where first the hard liquor hits you, then a sugary taste replaces it, and then it’s time for another quick round. Depending on how much of a purist you are, the story of a Taiwanese hitman who accidentally falls into Japanese family life will go down either like an endearing delight or a mildly amusing snooze. Just as divisive as the director’s 2015 fantasy romance featuring angels, Chasuke’s Journey, it follows Chasuke into Berlin competition and very likely into the same markets.
The trajectory of Sabu’s directing career has always been toward experimentation with new forms, and here he bets he can swing the audience from sophisticated violence to funky family humor without losing a beat. If it works, it’s because a relentless stylishness unifies the film, extending from the hard bright lights of upscale Taipei all the way to the sleaziest junkyard of rural Japan, where the action unfolds.
The story opens in a Tarantino sort of way, as an adrenaline-rushed gang that has just pulled off a big hold-up swaps silly stories in their hideout behind a gaudy Buddhist temple. Enter major Taiwanese actor Chang Chen dressed in elegant Matrix black. He makes short shrift of the entire gangland brood with less emotion than Mack the Knife and calmly walks off with the loot. It’s not about the choreography here, since the tattooed brutes simply drop to the floor like flies, but about well-paced camera work and exciting editing.
Instead of expressing their pleasure and appreciation, Long’s bosses hand him another assignment. A bare hint of surprise in his voice tells us Tokyo is not his usual stomping ground, but he accepts. The next scene is in a packed strip club, where his bleached blond mark is easy to spot. But the hit goes badly and Long ends up in a gunny sack, being kicked into his grave by enraged Yakuzas. Only a Houdini could get out of this situation, but help arrives from a deranged man who runs up and stabs the boss, offering Long the chance he needs to scamper off through the brush like a sack with legs. It’s a comic sight despite our hero taking a bullet in the side, and introduces the next stage of the film.
The pace slows down considerably as Long limps through a ratty abandoned neighborhood. When he wakes up he finds an angelic little boy, Jun (Runyin Bai) who arrives first with water, then meds, and finally a bundle of used clothes. At this point the film could have been titled The Good Karma of Mr. Long, and indeed, he wonders if Jun might be a dog he once rescued.
Jun’s mom Lily (versatile newcomer Yiti Yao) is a junkie who leaves the tyke to fend for himself. Long ties her up in a crude but instantly effective detox program. Later, her backstory is revealed in a long flashback. She was a carefree hooker until she fell for the boss’s driver, Kenji (Sho Aoyagi). Note to the sharp-eyed: the necklace he bought for her appeared earlier in one of the Taiwan scenes, quietly suggesting that the crazy man who attacked the boss with a knife was Kenji. Now he’s dead and Long is there to take care of Lily and his son.
More good fortune comes his way when a neighbor samples his camp cooking and asks him to cook for a party. Since he needs cash to buy a boat ticket back home, he agrees, and soon the whole neighborhood is praising his cuisine. They build him a mobile food cart, unasked, and launch him as a cook in front of the temple. There are some tedious Chaplin-esque shots of Long pulling his noodle cart past trash heaps with the cute little Jun pushing it from behind. The fact that no one understands Chinese gives him an excuse to play entire scenes without speaking a word, like in a silent movie, while around him people chatter in Japanese, Chinese and Taiwanese.
Within the space of a few days, Long finds himself assuming a paternal role toward Jun and feeling not adversely disposed toward the lovely Lily. The neighbors continue to offer comic relief, little knowing they have an international assassin in their midst.
It’s a question whether Chang’s many fans will appreciate his transformation from Mr. Cool into a badly dressed noodle maker. Having worked with Wong Kar-Wai, Ang Lee, Hou Hsiao-Hsien and Edward Yang, the actor has the aplomb to pull off bits of wry comedy like losing a ping-pong match to Lily and moments of human warmth like getting Jun onto the baseball team. The anticipation lies in waiting for him to reveal his true identity, but the final scenes contain a few shocks.
Production companies: Live Max Film, LDH Pictures, BLK2 Pictures, Kaohsiung Film Fund, Rapid Eye Movies
Cast: Chen Chang, Sho Aoyagi, Yiti Yao, Runyin Bai, Masashi Arifuku, Taro Suwa, Ritsuko Okusa, Shiiko Utagawa, Yusuke Fukuchi, Tetsuya Chiba
Director, screenwriter: Sabu
Producers: Shozo Ichiyama, Koki Kageyama, Yoichi Shimizu, Jacky Pang, Stephan Holl
Co-producers: Antoinette Koester, Masamitsu Iwahata
Executive producer: Ken Ariyama
Director of photography: Koichi Furuya
Production designer: China Hayashi
Costume designer: Kazuyo Koiso
Editor: Georg Petzold
Music: Junichi Matsumoto
Casting director: Nana Higashihiraa
World sales: Jet Tone Films
Venue: Berlin Film Festival (competition)