Published Sep 23, 2011Commencing with maudlin strings scoring a dramatic pan across a city's waterfront, tonal miscues hinder what is otherwise an often wildly entertaining, hyper-realistic crime caper. Director Katsuhito Ishii (Funky Forest, the O-Ren Ishii anime sequence in Kill Bill) follows the chapter format laid out in the graphic novel by Shohei Manabe, on which this is based.
In a colour-desaturated flashback, chapter zero introduces the plight of Kinuta (Satoshi Tsumabuki), a failed actor conned into accruing a three million yen debt with the yakuza. To pay it off, he takes a loan from a manipulative goth Lolita banker and agrees to work it off as part of a crew of smugglers. His partners are Joe, the no-nonsense leader, and a wacky little soba-obsessed freak that'll stop to gesture a prayer after pulling gold teeth from the dead.
Now, Kinuta is ostensibly the protagonist, but existentialist assassin Vertebrae steals the show, receiving nearly as much screen time. The saga of the heavily scarred, nunchaku-wielding Zen killer and his partner, who may also be his lover, unfolds alongside Kinuta's struggles to function in a world he's not suited for, the two tales tragically intertwined.
When it's discovered that Kinuta's crew transported the headless body of a yakuza boss dispatched by Vertebrae, his demented and sadistic disciple, Kawashima, swears a blood vendetta against everyone involved. Ishii handles these tangled plot threads with care, doling out information at a measured pace while manoeuvring his cast into character building and revealing scenarios. Displaying a knack for inventive, kinetic and cleverly edited action sequences, Ishii films Vertebrae's fights in super-slow motion to demonstrate his uncanny speed, and for the hilarity of seeing every facial ripple after a blow and comically excessive bursts of saliva and blood shower out of struck mouths.
The exaggerated, histrionic performances of the appropriate characters contrast with the naturalistic and ultra-calm performances by others, adding to the heightened, occasionally physics-defying reality and idiosyncratic humour.
All of this would be entertaining enough to recommend, but Smuggler also has something of substance to say about how people act in order to be liked, the unreliability of kindness and the value of the intangible.
By no means flawless, Smuggler is nonetheless, a uniquely entertaining and philosophically engaging cinematic experience. (Warner)