Monday, July 16, 2012


NYAFF/Japan Cuts 2012 Presents:
Hard Romanticker (2011) - Gu
There is an old saying about the Japan-Korea relationship my grandfather once told me that is very revealing. Apparently it's really easy for a Japanese to pick out Koreans among them because Koreans stink of garlic. For a Korean who grew up under the Japanese Occupation and educated in Japan, this derogatory remark stayed with my grandfather as long as he lived. To say the least, for Zainichi Koreans (Koreans who are living in Japan as ethnic minorities), life hasn't exactly been wine and roses.

Based on his semi-autobiographical novel, director Gu Suyeon tells a story of fictional Gu (Shota Matsuda, younger brother of Ryuhei Matsuda and son of Yusaku), a lowly member of a local Korean gang in Shimonoseki, the southernmost seaport city of Japan's main island Honshu and the home of the largest concentration of Zainichis. Donning platinum blond, chain smoking Gu is an anomaly. He doesn't really abide by gang associations and gets into fights with just about anyone. He even beats up his superiors at a glue sniffing orgy to save one of the girls from being gang raped. A diligent cop (Atsuro Watanabe, Love Exposure) and marauding gangs on his tail, Gu, ever so nonchalant, gets a job as a manager at a fancy club in the neighboring city, Kokuro, not knowing his boss is also the boss of the rival gang. Not that he cares about any of it. While on the run, he even romances a leggy High school girl. In his absence in Shimonoseki, things get blown over and his stern grandma personally delivers the message that his close friend has died. He has to go back and face the music.

As one of the sons of famous action star Yusaku Matsuda who was hailed from Shimonoseki and a half-Korean, it's not a coincidence Gu chose Shota for the role. He is a revelation here, exuding badboy sex appeal, the younger Matsuda with his deadpan humor and devil may care attitude, has more in common with Masatoshi Nagase in Maiku Hama movies (which was said to be heavily influenced not only by Mikey Spillane novels but by Yusaku's 70-80s TV/movie personas) than his pretty boy brother Ryuhei.

Rather than making a broad social commentary about jingoistic society where a country doesn't recognize its dark past and the consequences, Gu's view is limited to a very personal storytelling that, at times can be viewed as nihilistic fantasy. Maybe it's possible that the world of Zainichi is completely separate from the rest of the 'normal' Japan (as indicated in a comical sequence where street gangs are asking around in every nooks and crannies of Shimonoseki, "Have you seen Gu?" and someone responds, "What is a Gu?"). Hard Romanticker also has that distinctive 70s feel, including rampant misogyny and violence against women. The cellphones and video games are the only visible evidence that it takes place in current times. Endlessly entertaining, Hard Romanticker is a fast paced, visceral gangster film with plenty of hard-knuckle fight scenes that will surely garner cult-status in the near future.