Juzo Itami’s Tampopo was a quirky blend of western tropes and epicurean delight. SABU’s Mr. Long is sort of like a nihilistic Tampopo. We follow a skilled assassin from Taiwan named Long (a brooding Chen Chang) who gets waylaid after a botched job in Japan. Our killer winds up in a Japanese slum, where his stoicism and culinary skills make him a hit with the locals. Yet the love of food and the goofy side characters can’t seem to overcome the bleak fatalism at the core of the film. I couldn’t help but think of Mr. Long as Tampopo by way of Clint Eastwood’s Unforgiven.
So yeah, it’s a nihilistic Tampopo and a slapstick Unforgiven.
As an elevator pitch, that sounds like a fascinating genre-mash. SABU shoots the movie sort of like Takashi Miike (he was a co-star in Miike’s Ichi the Killer), though a more staid Miike. There are long, slow stretches of the film, and it made me wonder about boredom as a narrative tool. In some ways, the dark and melodramatic punctuation marks of Mr. Long don’t work unless parts of the movie are boring.
Mr. Long (Ryu San)
Release Date: TBD
While recovering from his injuries, our hero befriends a boy named Jun (Runyin Bai) and his mother Lily (Yiti Yao) in an abandoned slum. Lily is a former prostitute turned junkie, and her story is where so much of the melodrama stems from. There’s an extended flashback that shows her tragic fall. The scene initially seems to be dropped in randomly, but thinking about the whole film in retrospect, Lily’s backstory comes after a period of slowness and inertness to increase its emotional impact. It’s a mood swing done with purpose. The initial outbursts of violence we see in Long’s life are eventually followed by cooking and a series of hesitant gestures toward domesticity. The pendulum can only always overcorrect.
I don’t think Mr. Long would work as well without these dull, silent stretches, and yet while watching the movie I felt bored in these moments. That’s the point. What happens in those boring scenes implies a welcome tranquility in these tumultuous lives. To the outside observer, it’s boring, but for the characters, a game or ping pong or a simple day making food or giggling with mom is a reprieve from past misery. For once, the present has some sort of order. The boredom can only last so long–maybe it lasts too long in the early going–before it runs the risk of interruption.
There’s a lot to discuss about the film’s overall cruelty and fatalism, and whether or not SABU has contempt for his characters like a vengeful god, but that would be getting into major spoiler territory. If you’re patient with Mr. Long and follow the film on its own terms, the reward is peaceful boredom for lives defined by pain and heartbreak. I’m not sure what to make of that exactly, but I keep thinking about the soporific/histrionic style of Mr. Long and how it deepens my appreciation for both its quiet and brutal moments.