Film has had a very long love affair with gangsters. In Frank Capra’s LADY FOR A DAY (1933), gangsters are played as mostly lovable, misunderstood heavies who manage to help the police ‘save the day’ in this feel-good Depression era comedy. Fifty years later – in Brian de Palma’s version of SCARFACE – a Cuban immigrant seizes power by way a drug cartel and begins his descent into money, madness and greed. In between, gangsters fulfilled a wide variety of roles in hundreds of other pictures. Sometimes, their propensity for violence was glossed over – when it wasn’t fully glamorized by an industry largely smitten with power itself – but rarely was it put up on the silver screen with a ‘tell it like it is’ mentality, allowing audiences to think for themselves about whether or not gangs deserved further cinematic study.
(NOTE: the following review will contain minor spoilers necessary solely for the discussion of plot and characters. If you’re the kind of reader who prefers a review entirely spoiler-free, then I’d encourage you to skip down to the last two paragraphs for my final assessment. If, however, you’re accepting of a few hints at ‘things to come,’ then read on …)
In fairness, it’s a bit of a challenge to describe the plot of HARD ROMANTICKER. Iin many ways, the story is awfully similar to the jazz riffs punctuating the film’s soundtrack: there’s a set-up, some basic note structure, and things just unfold from there. Gu (played by Shota Matsuda) is a gangster who’s indirectly linked to the killing of a rival’s grandmother, so he and his friends do what they must to avoid the inevitable confrontation … even if that means destroying one another as they try to get through what suffices for a life.
Directed by Gu Su-Yeon (and loosely based on a novel of his own creation), ROMANTICKER isn’t so much a ‘character study’ as it is a ‘case study.’ I won’t confuse you by implying that I know enough about the nuances of Japanese history to understand every social, economic, or cultural influence at play in the picture, but I’ve seen enough gangster and yakuza films to grasp the central idea: these are men without a vision for their future. There is no ladder to climb that they’re aware of. There are no aspirations to be better than what they are today. Clearly, the bosses vastly higher up and far removed are involved in calling the shots for legitimate criminal enterprises – we’re shown nightclubs run by mafia types where sex and drugs are the underlying commerce – but the young men explored in the film are so far down life’s ladder that much of their daily activity escapes the attention of anyone supposedly in command.
In Gu’s world, violence is the only form of communication.
When he’s spoken to in a fashion he doesn’t appreciate, he’ll respond in kind, with a boot to the face or a punch in the throat. When he’s disrespected in front of others, he might let it pass for a few moments – so that he can complete whatever transaction it is he came for – but then he’ll find the nearest blunt object and plant it upside his offender’s skull. When he’s tricked by a young girl into believing that she’s innocent, kind, shy, and demure, he’ll wait for the right moment to slap her around, knock her on her back, and have his vicious sexual way with her. This isn’t so much about an abuse of power – as some might argue – as it is the only form of communicating Gu knows.
That’s why I’d contend that so much of ROMANTICKER isn’t a character study, as I’ve read some other critics purport. Rather – as I said above – I think of it more like a case study – an examination of how these people ‘speak,’ ‘relate,’ and ‘behave’ in their modern age. We never truly get to know Gu – not in the way where we grow any closer to understanding his actions. Instead, we’re treated to the bare bones of a narrative built around some noticeably increasing tension. This is a ‘macro’ exam, not a ‘micro’ look. While there are layers of characterization hinted at – why is Gu still so respectful of his grandmother when he’s so abusive of everyone else; why did Mieko (the aforementioned girl who ends up being savaged by Gu) repeatedly hold out on Gu while prostituting herself to others; why does Gu stay in touch with Mieko in a kinda/sorta ‘long distance’ relationship when it appears she’s rejected his advances – but nothing ever adds up to any definitive portrait of a man in crisis.
Gu just is; therefore, he hits.
That’s because on the character level there’s little to understand – all behavior is ‘instinctive’ and not predicated on understanding the personality or disposition – which only underscores my point that the director’s concern is with this world in its entirety and not these people as individuals. So far as he’s concerned, they’re pieces on a board, perhaps moved much in the same way that a dog herds sheep, perhaps yet one more indication that, despite the emphasis on Gu, this isn’t so much a story about Gu as it is Gu’s world.
Of course, I could be completely wrong. (I have been before!) Still, HARD ROMANTICKER isn’t about glamorizing violence, like so many other gangster pictures end up doing whether it be deliberate or accidental. It’s a hard-knock life – grim indeed – especially when you have nothing to believe in, and I believe that’s probably closer to the film’s central meaning than anything else.
HARD ROMANTICKER is produced by Kadokawa Haruki Jimusho, Kinoshita Group, Molotov Cocktail, Nihon Shomei Co., Toei Company, and Toei Video Company. DVD distribution (stateside) is being handled through Artsploitation Films. As for the technical specifications, the film looks and sounds exceptional – including an interesting up-tempo jazz soundtrack by Kaoru Wada. This is a Japanese language film with English subtitles. All too common in foreign releases is the fact that there’s little special features available – essentially the theatrical trailer – but, thank goodness, the product packaging includes a terrific little 8-page collector’s booklet that includes two solid essays (one a critical analysis of the film, and the other a brief history of Toei Studios’ yakuza films). Unrated, but this is NO family film, people.
HIGHLY RECOMMENDED. As gangster flicks go, HARD ROMANTICKER certainly packs a wallop – complete with a steel pipe. It’s an unflinching and unflattering portrayal of listless youth with no code of honor except for what they stand for in this day and time. Think of it as the polar opposite of the samurai film – where knights stood for things like honor, duty, lord, class, etc. The ‘knights’ here – if you want to call them that – merely stand for their own petty obsessions, their own self-destruction, and whatever else might strike their fancy at any given moment. They’re loyal – only so much as it serves the immediacy of their circumstances – in a world where the grim reality of the moment is all they have to live for.
In the interests of fairness, I’m pleased to disclose that the fine folks at Artsploitation Films provided me with an advance DVD screener of HARD ROMANTICKER by request for the expressed purposes of completing this review.