Fantastic Fest Review: Smuggler

25 Sep

Do you ever go into a movie without any expectations, not having any idea what to expect from it?  So far, that has been one of my very favorite things about attending Fantastic Fest.  I have been consistently surprised, and thus far, they have all been good surprises.

This was absolutely the case with Katsuhito Ishii’s Smuggler.  Based on a manga I have never heard of and directed by a man who is almost unknown to me, I had no idea what to expect.  What I got was a crime film that was equal parts funny, disturbing, exciting, and fascinating.

Smuggler is the story of Kinuta (played by Satoshi Tsumabuki), a very unconfident, failed actor who lands in debt and is forced to take a job with a “clean-up crew”/transport service.  Basically, he is removing bodies that have been recently assassinated, in the company of a strong, silent boss and an old, silly assistant.  This has the makings of an interesting movie all by itself, but if you add in two master assassins who may or may not be slightly superhuman, it becomes fascinating.

It’s hard to make a crime thriller that has three-dimensional characters in it.  Very few directors have accomplished that.  I think this becomes an even more difficult task if you try to throw humor into the mix.  But Katsuhito Ishii has pulled it off here.  The characters feel real, almost from the very beginning.  Even the nun chuck wielding super assassin named Vertebrae (brought to us by the always capable Masanobu Ando).

And while we’re on the subject of nun chucks, let me mention that the action in Smuggler is awesome.  This is the same director who gave us the animated portion of Kill Bill, and with this film he proved to me what his many fans around the world already knew:  that live action fights appear just as effortless as animated ones in his very capable hands.

There is a torture scene here, and, as I knew nothing about this movie, I was not expecting that.  I usually hate that.  It’s a big reason that I regularly don’t watch what a good majority of modern filmmakers consider horror.  But a big reason that it usually bothers me is that it’s pointless.  If the entire movie is based around the idea of torture, then it’s not essential to the plot of the movie, because there is no plot.  It’s lazy.  But this was different.  This was absolutely essential to not only the plot, but also the development of a central character.  And it was treated in such a way that Ishii never lost the sense of humor that pervades this entire film.

So, should you see Smuggler?  Absolutely.  I have no idea if it will get a theatrical release in the United States.  I doubt it.  But it will hopefully at least be available on DVD in the near future.  And you should keep an eye out for it.

-david

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