Sitges 2011: SMUGGLER Review

Kinuta is a young loser. After giving up his dream of being an actor he spends his days playing pachinko machines in a futile attempt to win some money. But things get even worse when he gets involved in a gambling machine scam and ends up with a three million yen debt with the yakuza. His only way out is to accept the offer of a beautiful loan shark who lends him the money and ask him to work for her. The job is easy: become an underworld smuggler and deal with whatever cargo is necessary. Job one, a yakuza boss' corpse. Soon Kinuta and his mentor Joe will get their hands full as they get involved with the yakuza, the triads and a couple of mysterious killers.

Smuggler is the latest work of Katsuhito Ishii who is no stranger to Sitges, The Taste Of Tea having won the Orient Express Award at Sitges' 04. Based on the manga by Shohei Manabe, the film is a refreshing mix of thriller, comedy and some action touches. It may seem an awkward mix, but it works really well for the most part. The film's comedic moments usually come from the colourful and eccentric ensemble of characters, ranging from the deranged yakuza thug who's obsessed with avenging his boss to the gothic lolita loan shark that runs the smuggler business, with a couple of almost superhuman Chinese killers thrown into the mix, one of them wonderfully played by Masanobu Ando. These killers also dominate the action sequences of the film, shot mostly in slow motion to give a tremendous sense of power to every punch and blow. There is also a specially harsh torture sequence, with various sharp tools involved, but it never gets too uncomfortable to watch as most of the action is kept offscreen. But for the most part, the movie keeps an overall comedic tone, keeping the pace and making it easier for the audience to feel sympathy for Kinuta as he struggles to get back on his feet.

Over the years Katsuhito Ishii has built an interesting filmography, developing a style of his own. Smuggler will surely please his fans and will attract some new viewers to his previous work. But it's also a difficult film to recommend to everyone, mainly because the mix of genres. It never reaches the disparity of moods of films like Save The Green Planet!, but they share some similarities as they both mix thriller with comedy and throw in some extreme torture. Judging from the response from Sitges' audience though, those who are attracted by the film's premise (or the people behind it) won't be disappointed. I certainly wasn't.

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