If my original plan had gone through, I would've probably watched this late last month during the Hong Kong International Film Festival with all the fanfare of this Derek Yee movie being one of two opening films of the festival. And I guess we all know how the the filmmakers decided to plough ahead with its release despite the Chinese censors not given its blessing yet, thereby effectively shutting it off the screens in China, but I reckon never off its streets given the relatively rampant piracy situation.
Which of course shows how innovative the Chinese can get in skirting around the law in order to etch out a living. Shinjuku Incident would look in part a celebration of the undying spirit of the illegal Chinese immigrants in Tokyo trying to carve a better life for themselves back in the 90s where thousands made their way to the Land of the Rising Sun, and this film chronicles the kind of sparse lifestyle that they adopted, and the occupation of choice in order to bag as much dough as possible, constantly looking over their shoulders for cops, and accepting any job offer despite being exploited because of their illegal status.
But the stronger message in the story here, is how easily the Chinese get taken advantage of. As the adage goes, united we stand and divided we fall. It's very obvious that given the myriad of Chinese, from the Mainlanders with the different dialect groups to the Taiwanese to the Hong Kongers etc, the immigrants here are shown to exhibit solidarity when they are together, sharing whatever little spoils they have as they build their little community. But quick success would mean the opportunity for corruption to creep in, splitting up the unity established, and spawn plenty of infighting to make the community weak again and ripe for the picking by their enemies. Perhaps in not wanting to acknowledge this issue as highlighted in the film, would have resulted in making Violence an excuse for the Chinese censors to drag their feet in awarding a rating, since they put the people on the whole in some negative light.
One scene too was reminisce of Bruce Lee's Fist of Fury, where Lee's character Chen Zhen rips apart a signboard that says "Sick Man of Asia". Here, lead actor Jackie Chan tears away a sign that says "No Entry to Chinese", but this is no action movie for the action star we're so used to see. In fact, if Shinjuku Incident was a typical Jackie Chan film, then we would see him kick everyone's rear with nary a scratch to himself. Here he drops his superhuman persona, wanting instead to take on a more dramatic, ordinary role as Steelhead, a simple man from Northeastern China who made his way to Tokyo in order to look for his lost love Xiu Xiu (Xu Jinglei).
He strikes an unlikely friendship with Japanese police inspector Kitano (Naoto Takenaka in a more dramatic role too, as I associate him with madcap characters he plays in zero-to-hero movies), and works his way around the new environment with the help of Daniel Wu's cowardly Jie, and with the likes of supporting characters played by Chin Kar Lok and Lam Suet. Together with his Chinese buddies, Steelhead embarks on a life of crime after seeing his lady love had already moved on in life, and a crime he committed back home meant his new one should begin in Japan, hence the desire to achieve instant results. It's almost quite an insult though to the Japanese's polite society manners that the Chinese sought to exploit for personal gains.
Derek Yee had fused some realism into his previous drug-triad drama Protege, and here he does the same in bringing on the Japanese crime lords, where their latest election of a new leader brought about unhappiness amongst the ranks. So the illegal immigrants got embroiled in the new turf war, in order to lead it to the second and very hurried act of witnessing how power could corrupt, especially when the person at the top, Steelhead, decides to adopt a nepotistic approach in delegating power to friends out of pity, or out of having to repay favours, and didn't spell the out-of-bound markers clearly. All this just because of his rebound affection for Fan Bingbing's bar hostess Lily, who's severely underused here.
Surprisingly the many subplots cooked up for the film, got let down by the relatively fluffy narrative style. It had wanted to deal with multiple themes (like selfishness, unity, betrayal and doing deeds for the greater good at whatever the costs), but found itself introducing them quite haphazardly, jumping from one point to the other sometimes with disregard to time. While action sequences are very sparse and bordering on shock value with in-your-face type violence, the finale whack-fest brought to mind some Johnnie To classical stand off moments, but unfortunately was let down by the tight shots and poor lighting. And lo and behold, the guilty party in ruining the film experience is the trailer which basically spelt everything out in black and white terms, so if you haven't seen any clips of the film, don't.
Jackie Chan had limited success in taking on a more dramatic role, and a morally ambiguous character who's prime motivation may have seemed like a mechiavellian one masked by a very simple exterior, and looked clearly uncomfortable in not being able to unleash his usual repetoire of stunts when surrounded by thugs. Deniel Wu however upstaged Chan with ease with his Jie role, despite having to suffer bad hair days throughout the film with a ridiculous perm, and a Joker-esque makeup in the latter half. And following the Jackie Chan trend, female characters are little to show for, and here both Xu Jinglei and Fan Bingbing's characters do nothing more than looking good and offer translator services.
Shinjuku Incident is a good effort, but nowhere near the ranks of Derek Yee's better films. This is not to say that this film is no good, but it could have been much better. A pity too that it had to end with a whimper.