Hard Romanticker premiered in the US at the Japan Society of New York back in July, but Philly’s own Artsploitation Films brings it into your homes with a DVD and VOD release. Their edition is a handsome one, including a substantial booklet of essays. Romanticker is a deadpan black comedy of astounding criminality, boundless misogyny, and thrives on a grisly current of violence. The film is an adaptation of the director’s own semi-autobiographical novel. Romanticker’s tone is gritty and its population is wildly amoral, but humor arises constantly. Gu su-yeon is a second generation Korean born in 1961 in Shimonoseki, Japan (the location of the film). He started, as many Japanese filmmakers, as a commercial director. In 2001 he penned Hard Romanticker, but didn’t direct his first film until 2003 when he adapted another of his novels. Romanticker marks his third feature.
Hard Romanticker concerns a slanted re-imagining of Gu Su-yeon’s adolescent years as a Zainichi (Japanese born Korean) in working-class seaside Shimonseki in Yamaguchi, Japan. The fictional character Gu, – thin, stoic, crude with striking blonde hair – stirs up rivalry wherever he goes. He is played by Shota Matsuda – most noted for his role as a sensitive wealthy teen in the comedy/drama series Hana Yori Dango (Boys Over Flowers [which has a Korean version Kkotboda Namja]). Matsuda’s depiction of Gu is exactly the opposite of that beloved TV role in every respect, and he is all the better for it as an artist. The fact that a Japanese actor has taken on a role as a Zainichi– in particular one that expresses a hard life as an outsider – is a very public and encouraging symbol of intercultural collaboration.
Gu is caught in the middle of a blood feud between warring Zainichi and ethnic Japanese gangs. The director begins somewhere at the end – plunking the audience into the middle of this aggression blindly – and then backtracks. Gu is a loner for the most part, so he suffers no pains of conscience or tests of loyalty. He works several dead-end sidejobs and associates with unsavory lowlifes. Gu has a bizarre “moral” compulsion though – or rather some of his decisions have the consequence of seeming moral which he then counters with cool savagery – such as saving a girl from being raped by beating her assailants with a motorcycle helmet, berating associates for sniffing paint-thinner, driving a schoolgirl home on his scooter, visiting his grandmother in hospital, and obliging his older friend Shoji’s personal request.
Hard Romanticker has a unique visual style – more to the point, an anti-style. The cinematography is virtually function-only. One gets the sense that the film was captured on glorified CCTV cameras, but these strange angles – slightly below or above the expected vantage, pivoting from a stationary axis – is highly deliberate. It propels the baseness and banality of Shimonseki. By detracting the “cinema” of it, Gu Su-yeon allows the strangeness to come through even more. The jazzy jam-style musical score featuring trumpet, organ, sax and drums takes that effect even farther into a realm of irreverence.
One of Gu’s main enemies is gang leader Park Yong-oh. Gu beats his brother in an alleyway to extract information and sets a series of feverish rivalries in motion. Park, an aspiring heavyweight boxer, is man of curious restraint. He waits until the last minute to strike. He may be the most interesting character in the film because of his sense of withholding and the primal nature of is instincts.
Though not for the faint of heart, Romanticker appeals to the Tarantino-lover in all of us, and is a throwback to the rough-and-tumble yakuza films of late 60’s and 70’s Japan. As Gu bounces from one violent encounter to the next, we accrue a sense of this town and the glacial pace of life that is stirring such rash, anxious, and seedy behavior. With Romanticker, the mood is the message, and the message is unthinking hostility. Even Gu will surprise you at the end.
Hard Romanticker is now available now on DVD.