Japan Cuts Review: Smuggler


[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.]

The late George Carlin once gave a very concise explanation of the difference between a “maniac” and a “crazy person.” He said, “A maniac will beat nine people to death with a steel dildo. A crazy person will beat nine people to death with a steel dildo, but he’ll be wearing a bunny suit at the time.” Like so many of his jokes, that particular line has always stuck with me. Very rarely does it apply to movies though. Generally speaking, even the most disturbed and violent antagonists are maniacs. I’ve seen (and sometimes enjoyed) all kinds of disgusting movies, but even though I must have seen at least one or two crazy people, none really come to mind.

Smuggler‘s got a crazy person, though, and he’s really, really crazy. 

Smuggler (Sumaguraスマグラー おまえの未来を運べ)
Director: Katsuhito Ishii
Rating: R
Country: Japan 

Ryosuke Kinuta (Satoshi Tsumabuki) owes some money to some people who you don’t want to owe money to. It’s an unfortunate circumstance to be in, and it means that Ryosuke has to start doing things that are less than legal to come up with the cash. He is put under the watchful eye of Jo (Masatoshi Nagase) and his assistant, Jijii (Tatsuya Gashuin). They are smugglers, and they’re very good at their jobs. As far as the film is concerned, they seem to mostly smuggle corpses, but it’s possible their repertoire extends beyond that. Either way, they’re given the task of smuggling a live on, an assassin named Vertebrae, who killed a major crime boss. And, like you would expect, things don’t go so well.

Unfortunately, I don’t know what kind of movie Smuggler is supposed to be, and I’m not sure it does either. It’s based on a manga which the Anime News Network categorizes as “Drama,” but it’s really not that simple. Sometimes it seems like the film is some zany, verging-on-supernatural action comedy with ridiculous characters and events, but at other times it comes off as a barely humorous dark tale full of misery and woe. Usually whenThe reason I don’t know is because it completely stops making sense around two-thirds of the way in, and a lot of that has to do with Vertebrae.

Masanobu Ando in Smuggler Japanese film

It’s clear from the beginning that Vertebrae is strong. The opening scene, which makes effective (if a bit excessive) use of slow-mo, definitively shows that he is a force to be reckoned with. That’s fine. He’s an assassin, and an assassin should be able to move faster than some bumbling bodyguards. That makes complete and perfect sense. And it made sense that the smugglers attempting to transport him would have him intensely bound up, because he’s dangerous. But the bindings were no more intense than those given to Hannibal Lector, and he’s not a superhuman. But then Vetebrae leaps from a truck and runs into the tall grass. In the blink of an eye, he is gone. That was weird and off-putting. Things stopped being quite so clear. But then it went completely insane. While being shot at with by a man weilding an Uzi, Vertebrae begins climbing walls and contorting his body in impossible ways (as evidenced by some terrible CG). I was completely incredulous. What the hell was going on?

At the same time, I was bearing witness to some horrific torture and brutality. Put in the place of Vertebrae, Ryosuke silences and steels himself for some really messed up stuff. It’s mostly the promise of violence rather than the violence itself, but the horrors of the imagination vs. the horrors of reality are well documented, so I don’t feel the need to say anything more about that. In the place of visuals, Smuggler relies on its excellent sound design. I don’t know for sure what a burning hot needle sounds like when it’s being stuck through the space between someone’s toes, but now I feel like I have a pretty good idea. The scene also has the dubious honor of featuring the single most unpleasant use of a hammer I have ever seen (or, in this case, heard). It’s not big and grotesque, nor is it any kind of killing blow; it’s a little “tink” sound that made the entire theater groan.

What makes the whole thing worse is the demeanor of the man performing the torture. He is a “crazy person,” no doubt about it. He leaves the torture room whistling and returns wearing a naval jacket and a diaper. I laughed because it was ridiculous, but nothing about it was actually funny. And that’s part of the problem. The first part of the film is funny. The opening scene is really funny, including the crazy slow-mo violence. It’s all played for comedic effect. In fact, there’s an entire character who exists for comedic relief. But at some point it just stops being funny. Maybe it’s when that first needle goes in, or maybe it’s after the twelfth. I can’t say for sure, but when things too that took for the dark, everything leading up to that seemed really inappropriate. The film got everyone in the mood to laugh, and then it dove headfirst into an empty pool. 

Satoshi Tsumabuki in Smuggler Japanese film

But before things went full retard, as Robert Downey Jr. would say, I was finally starting to like Smuggler. Beyond the violence in the opening and the occasional good joke, the film was pretty boring for a while. I was waiting for the various storylines that had been opened up to start to come together. Then things picked up around the halfway mark, when everybody started meeting everybody else. At that point, I like what I was seeing. I was getting myself invested in the story and the characters. But as the film slowly left reality, it became harder and harder for me to enjoy the film. I began to question everything I had seen, and that’s never a good sign. I was trying to find some kind of clue that would have allowed me to see the insanity coming, but I couldn’t think of it. Instead, I was watching a trainwreck.

If you can accept from the beginning that Smuggler does not take place in reality, you won’t have as many issues with the film that I did. Even knowing that wouldn’t really have justified the ridiculous turn it took, but at least I would have had some expectations of insanity. As it was, I was watching a movie that had no idea what it wanted to be, and I wasn’t really sure I wanted to be watching it.