[For the month of July, we will be covering the New York Asian Film Festival and the (also New York-based) Japan Cuts Film Festival, which together form one of the largest showcases of Asian cinema in the world. For our NYAFF coverage, head over here. For Japan Cuts, here.]
Before the screening of Hard Romanticker, one of the programmers talked about how the film is a throwback to a style of Japanese cinema that I know almost nothing about. It’s an old-fashioned crime drama, and it’s got violence and sex and all of those other things that you want from your crazy Japanese entertainment. I haven’t seen any of the movies that Hard Romanticker is harkening back to, though, and the closest point of comparison I have is a film from 1960 called The Cruel Story of Youth. Hard Romanticker reminded me a lot of The Cruel Story of Youth.
I hated The Cruel Story of Youth.
Hard Romanticker (Hadoromanchika | ハードロマンチッカー)
Director: Su-Yeon Gu
I couldn’t really tell you what the story of Hard Romanticker is, because it’s both irrelevant and uninteresting. Gu (Shota Matsuda) has done various things to make various people unhappy, so pretty much everyone wants his head on a pike. I know that one particular group hates him because he beat someone up, and I think another group hates him because he beat other people up, but I don’t really know. Beyond that, there is a very nosy police officer who fits into the whole thing somewhere, and I have no idea why. There is probably something more there, but I never figured out what it was, nor did I really care enough to try.
Normally I’m not one to criticize a film for its representation of a gender, but I have to make an exception for Hard Romanticker. It’s kind of amazing, actually, how terribly women are treated in the film. None of them have anything close to a personality (with one exception I will talk about later), and basically all of them exist as nothing more than sexual objects. In fact, more than a few of the women spend their entire time onscreen naked and unconscious, being groped by some paint-thinner addicts. If you want to talk about the objectification of women in films, Hard Romanticker is an excellent place to start.
But even though women are sexually brutalized, the men are still the victims of some pretty merciless violence. In fact, Hard Romanticker has some of the best violence I’ve seen in a while. It’s not because it’s particularly well choreographed or anything, but because it looks so real. If I had to guess, I’d say that 75% of the hits in the film were real. And I’m not talking about major, damage-causing strikes, I mean just smacks and slaps and small hits. There are a lot of them, and there’s no way they didn’t actually connect. Even if sound was used to amplify the effect, the amount of onscreen violence meant that what was put offscreen (or obscured the way movies usually do it) stood out.
There are two moments of violence in particular that shocked/impressed me. The first was a kick to the stomach that pulled a collective groan from the audience. It was quick, intense, and right in the center of the screen. I imagine there was some speeding up involved, perhaps the victim was wearing some protective padding, and a few extra effects made the whole thing seem worse than it was, but I wasn’t thinking about it then. I was thinking about the second one though, because it shocked me and by that point I had no interest in the events of the film. Gu hits somebody in the head with a pipe. Simple enough? Absolutely, fake pipe. No problem. Except for the fact that Gu spun around and hit the wall with it, taking out a chunk of the wood. Then he hit it two more times, each leaving a (completely different) kind of gash. Maybe there was a cut I missed, but it was pretty damn impressive from where I was sitting.
Generally speaking, Hard Romanticker spends a lot of time with each moment. There are numerous long takes, and most of them are static shots. Static shots tend to be pretty boring, which is why I found it interesting that the filmmakers used them as a way to frame violence. Single-take static-shots do a lot to remove the intensity of action sequences, but Hard Romanticker still manages to pull some pretty harsh moments out of them. If there’s one good thing that I cold pull out of the film, it’s that, and I don’t really know how good that is.
The character themselves, when not being abused and beaten, range from boring to downright awful. Taking aside the fact that a lot of the characters (Gu included) are rapists, there’s just nothing redeeming about any of the characters. I couldn’t even feel sympathy for the majority of the girls because they weren’t actual people. The were just things. The only person I really liked was Gu’s grandmother, and that was because her generic identity was that of a bitter old grandmother, and bitter old grandmothers are funny. Even with her though, I never felt any kind of affinity to anybody, so I had nothing invested in the little story that was there.
I understand that I’m missing the point. Hard Romanticker is about going back to the ultra-violent, ultra-sexual Japanese crime movies of old, but the film can’t survive on nostalgia alone. I can see Hard Romanticker having a market in Japan, and I can also see it having a market over here as well, but I don’t know why I can see it. Many of the other people at the theater I talked to did seem to enjoy the film (although the sentiment about misogyny was widely felt), although a lot of them had fond memories of the good old days.
But it’s not the good old days anymore. We’ve moved beyond films like Hard Romanticker, and we’re better for it. The Japanese film industry is better for it. It’s all well and good to look to the past, but if this is what the past was like, then good riddance.