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  • Benjamin May

Shinjuku Incident (2009) Review

In the early 1990's, a Chinese man named Steelhead illegally enters Japan by way of a cargo ship, which sinks off the coast. He is looking for his fiancé Xiu-Xiu, who disappeared in the country years before. Stranded miles from nowhere without his papers, Steelhead somehow makes it to Tokyo, where he rendezvouses with friends from back home. They teach him the tricks of the underworld, and he is soon the de-facto leader of an all-Chinese gang. Still searching for Xiu-Xiu- and incurring the wrath of the Yakuza- Steelhead comes to realize that the grass is not necessarily greener on the other side, and that life in Shinjuku may not be worth living at all.

Directed by Derek Yee, 'Shinjuku Incident' is a dark drama that makes for a refreshing change of pace for star Jackie Chan. Yee and co-writer Chun Tin-nam's screenplay focuses on the experience of illegal immigrants, examining how some are taken advantage of and left with no prospects outside a life of crime. Their version of Shinjuku is a violent, inhospitable place populated by bottom-feeding scum and insidious gangsters. Steelhead's story- of an outsider being perverted by the depravity of the city- is a sadly believable one, at times feeling reminiscent of films like 'Manila in the Claws of Light.'

This is not to say the screenplay is without fault. Secondary characters are generally ill-defined and- more often than not- sequences involving the Yakuza feels like a pale imitation of the work of Kinji Fukasaku. Additionally, the character of Steelhead is initially morally ambiguous, though paradoxically becomes more virtuous as he rises in the criminal underworld. Perhaps this was done to acquiesce to Chan's cardinal rule that he never plays a villain- or an irredeemable one, that is. Whatever the reason, it is a strange bit of characterization that feels slightly jarring and out of place within the gritty urban drama that the film is billed as.

'Shinjuku Incident' features assured cinematography from Nobuyasu Kita that highlights the grime and degeneracy of the city. Oliver Wong's impressive production design adds to locations a feeling of authenticity, which the detailed set decoration compounds. Furthermore, the costume design from Satoe Araki and Angelo Bernardo Castillo is striking, with Xiu-Xiu's kimonos and various Yakuza outfits being particularly memorable.

Jackie Chan stars as Steelhead, delivering a restrained performance that ranks alongside his very best. Chan had proven himself an adept dramatic performer before, in projects like 'Heart of Dragon' and- to some extent- the first two 'Police Story' pictures. Here he showcases a great amount of vulnerability, disappearing inside the character in a way he had not done before. Though Steelhead has a moral code and plenty of redeeming qualities, it is still the closest Chan has ever come to playing a bad guy; and he does it brilliantly.

Chan's co-stars prove themselves to be up to his standard, with a few being especially deserving of praise. Daniel Wu stars as a friend of Steelhead's named Jie, who has an interesting character arc that Wu realizes brilliantly. A multifaceted talent, Wu threatens to steal the picture at times with his remarkable ease of performance. Additionally, Fan Bingbing does excellent work as Steelhead's love interest Lily, demonstrating the boundless charisma and pure acting prowess that has endeared her to so many. Also worthy of note is Naoto Takenaka's performance as Inspector Kitano, which is- simply put- faultless.

A gritty urban drama, 'Shinjuku Incident' offers fans of Jackie Chan something a little different. Violent, exciting and nicely shot by Nobuyasu Kita, the film has many positive elements. While the story may lose steam in the latter half, and a few of the secondary characters are underwritten, it is still entertaining and suspenseful. For fans of Chan- and of Hong Kong cinema in general- 'Shinjuku Incident' is well worth a watch.


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