Artsploitation Films // 2011 // 109 Minutes // Not Rated
Reviewed by Appellate Judge Patrick Bromley // January 23rd, 2013
A film by Gu Su-Yeon.
It's unlikely that in 2013, anyone is going to reinvent the crime film. It's been around since the 1930s, and undergone so many different versions and permutations that most modern entries that work only do so because they pay homage to the proven tenants and tropes of the past. Messy as it may be, Killing Them Softly is interesting because it feels like a '70s effort in its attention to character and its gritty feel. Drive overtly pays tribute to the neon-drenched '80s. Then there are movies like the 2011 Japanese movie Hard Romanticker, which combines much of the familiarity with the American crime film with some of the worst aspects of "extreme" Asian cinema and comes up with a product that still manages to feel way too familiar.
Billed as a "semi-autobiographical" tale written and directed by Gu Su-Yeon, Hard Romanticker follows Gu (Shota Matsuda), a young hoodlum living in Japan who gets wrapped up in a bloody mess when a friend of his accidentally murders the grandmother of a notorious gangster. Recklessly determined to spit in the faces of much of Japan's underworld, Gu goes on a tear and pisses everyone off, including the cop (Atsuro Watabe) who's tailing him.
I love exploitation movies. I like crime movies. I can enjoy violent movies. Hard Romanticker technically qualifies as all three, and yet there is something profoundly unpleasant about the experience of watching it. Some of it is the sheer amount of rape and wanton violence and general criminal behavior on display. That's to be expected. But those things are what the movie is about, and, as Roger Ebert says, movies must be judged not by what they are about but by how they are about it. It's that "how" that bothered me with Hard Romanticker. The movie so clearly wants to be A Clockwork Orange, but lacks any of Anthony Burgess' (or Stanley Kubrick's) talent for social commentary, satire or black comedy. Instead, the movie too often plays like a mid-'90s, post-Tarantino celebration of criminal behavior -- it has a kind of "Isn't this funny?" smugness to it that just feels distasteful.
But movies do not have to be tasteful, because there is no single arbiter of "taste." What is distasteful to some is entertainment to others. The problem with Hard Romanticker is that it so rarely wants to take responsibility for its own bad taste. There is plenty of "extreme" Japanese cinema (I'm looking at you, Takashi Miike) that's darker and sicker than what Gu Su-Yeon offers here, but the filmmakers take ownership of that sickness. Su-Yeon seems to be hiding behind the "semi-autobiographical" aspects of the story, presenting some terrible images and events and daring the viewer to challenge them because "Hey, these things happened...maybe." There are moments where both Su-Yeon and his characters present an attitude towards violence, like a haunting and horrible auto accident to which Gu bears witness. Unfortunately, moments like that are undercut by the graphic and extended pummeling of a young woman's face, essentially played for laughs. Just because the characters find it funny does not mean that we have to. And if we're going to, you better make sure that it's somehow actually funny. That would be some trick.
Hard Romanticker arrives on DVD from Artsploitation (a frustrating name for a studio that's clearly trying to have it both ways, much like this movie) in a package that's acceptable but underwhelming. The film gets a 1.85:1 anamorphic transfer that's a tad soft and washed out, color-wise, but some of that appears to be a result of the way the movie was filmed. The 5.1 audio track isn't called upon to do much, but handles the dialogue fine and showcases some decent, if shallow, dimensionality. The audio is in the original Japanese, presented with English subtitles. The only bonus features included are the movie's original theatrical trailer and a booklet with essays on Hard Romanticker and director Gu Su-Yeon.
Hard Romanticker isn't a bad movie, necessarily. It's lurid and energetic, which can be very good qualities. It's just that those qualities are in the service of a movie that's interested in very little more, and one that's derivative of too many other movies and outdated style -- it owes too much to A Clockwork Orange and early Tarantino and even Guy Ritchie to feel all that relevant. Maybe all of these things really did happen to director Gu Su-Yeon, which makes me believe that his entire life was informed by mid-'90s crime movies (which, ironically, were often inspired by Asian cinema themselves, meaning the dog is eating its own bloody tail). Hard Romanticker is a lot like one of those, only a little harder, a little edgier, a little more violent and a little ickier.
Nothing you haven't seen before.
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Scales of Justice
Studio: Artsploitation Films
* 1.85:1 Anamorphic
* Dolby Digital 5.1 Surround (Japanese)
Running Time: 109 Minutes
Release Year: 2011
MPAA Rating: Not Rated