The title of Gu Su-yeon’s semi-autobiographical crime thriller Hard Romanticker invites such critical summaries as ‘hard boiled’ or ‘hardcore’, attributes that it achieves through a consistently tough, if occasionally meandering, narrative concerning a young thug who causes trouble through a combination of arrogance and misjudgement. Gu (Shôta Matsuda) is a hoodlum of Korean descent operating in the South-West city of Shimonoseki, who is linked to a break-in committed by small-time teenage punks Masaru (Tokio Emoto) and Tatsu (Kento Nagayama) that results in the accidental killing of the the grandmother of North Korean gangster Kim Chon-gi (Yuya Endo). The incident is at least partially his fault, as the offenders were acting on his advice: ‘You said if you want to hurt someone, hurt their family or girlfriend’, one reminds him. Realising that he is being set-up as a scapegoat, Gu accepts an offer from nightclub owner Takagi (Shido Nakamura) who needs someone with the right skillset to run his business in Kobura. But getting out of town means leaving a few loose ends: Detective Fujita (Atsuro Watabe) wants to interrogate Gu for information, gangster Shoji (Claude Maki) has asked him to take care of a coin locker key, and he has started a relationship with alluring schoolgirl Chieko (Ayaka Tomoda). Unfinished business aside, Gu settles into his work for Takagi while sharing an apartment with club hostess Natsuko (Sei Ashina). However, he eventually returns to Shimonoseki, just in time to become embroiled in a gang war which will leave few survivors.
With its brash cocktail of blood, guts, sex, and low-budget stylistic vigour, Hard Romanticker courts comparison to the violent output of the Nikkatsu-affiliated exploitation factory Sushi Typhoon as Gu’s third feature sits somewhere in-between the twisted character study of Cold Fish (2011) and the ‘B’-movie attitude of Yakuza Weapon (2011) in terms of its approach to the crime genre. Gu has already covered Japanese-Korean heritage in The Yakiniku Movie: Bulgogi (2007) and seems to have embarked on Hard Romanticker as an exercise in genre tropes, rather than as another exploration of Zainichi culture. Still, the location of Shimonoseki, a city in Yamaguchi Prefecture with a large Korean population, certainly makes for a fresh backdrop for the otherwise familiar underworld machinations. ‘The world ain’t such a bad place, is it?’ asks a character who is about the take a fatal beating. Based on the level of cruelty on display in Hard Romanticker, the director may believe otherwise. Gu dishes out roughly as many beatings as he takes, Detective Fujita sadistically taunts suspects while pointing out that they are, ‘in a world of shit’, and Takagi tells Gu that he can, ‘just run down all those losers hanging out on the street’ while driving him around Kobura. Yet there is no overriding moral vision here as Gu is not so much channeling the futile reality of low-level yakuza life as the Japanese crime flicks of the 1970s, an influence that is playfully acknowledged by the seedy jazz grooves of Kaoru Wada’s score.
The film is capably anchored by rising star Matsuda, who makes an attention-grabbing bid for a big screen career after spending the best part of a decade in television drama. He projects the brutish manner of his character and, if his performance is not particularly sympathetic, even when Gu is caught between the proverbial rock and a hard place, that is arguably the point. By relocating from Shimonoseki to Kobura, the self-consciously brooding Gu evades death or prison time, undergoing an underworld make-over by swapping his scruffy street gear for a smart black suit, although he stops short of washing the peroxide out of his hair. Yet he does not change his outlook on life, or gain much career traction from his work for Takagi, and generally fails to learn from his mistakes. His self-image is far removed from his actual circumstances, and he romanticises his identity as a criminal, seeing himself as being older than his years. Talking to his love interest over the phone, Gu encourages her to take education seriously, stating that, ‘Young people should study’, although he could still be in a classroom if he was not running for his life from enemies who are more vicious at their most lenient than he is at his worst. A scene in which Gu flees from a gang by escaping across a rooftop in his underwear shows this wannabe at his most desperate, while establishing Hard Romanticker as energetic entertainment for those who shares its acerbic sense of humour.
Hard Romanticker is released on US DVD/VOD on January 22, 2013. It is the third release from Artsploitation Films, a new distributor that aims to deliver, ‘international films with an edge’.