Mr. Long (Japan, 2017) [NYAFF 2019]

Chang Chen is an internationally feted Taiwanese actor who has played a variety of roles ever since his debut as a student in Edward Yang’s A Brighter Summer Day (1991). His versatility saw him appear as a potential love-interest for Tony Leung’s heartbroken character in Wong Kar-Wai’s Happy Together (1997) and as a desert bandit romancing Zhang Ziyi’s martial-artist in Ang Lee’s Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon (2000). His near monosyllabic performance in the titular role of Mr. Long is less showy. It is lean and efficient, just like the storytelling sensibility of Sabu’s downbeat thriller, but Chen’s acting creates a figure just as memorable as his other roles.

Mr. Long (Chang Chen) is a Taiwanese hitman who specialises in using knives to slice and dice his way through targets. However, when an assignment in Tokyo goes wrong he finds himself wounded and on the run from yakuza intent on finishing him off. Battered and bloodied, he tumbles from the sparkling clubs of Roppongi to a run-down part of the city with derelict houses and abandoned people. This is where fortune smiles on him because he meets a young boy named Jun (Bai Runyin) who brings him clothing, water and spring onions. Soon, Mr. Long is cooking for himself and the kid and, eventually, Jun’s mother, a Taiwanese woman named Lily (Yao Yiti). She is a former prostitute who has been hooked on drugs by the local gangsters. He intervenes in their situation and proves to be a force of stability for her and Jun. As he turns his knife from cutting people to cutting meat and vegetables, fate seems to offer him a chance to change his life as he gets to know his Japanese neighbours and win them over with his cooking skills.

After a pretty brutal opening, the film leaves the world of hardened gangsters and floats the idea of how one might be able to escape desperate circumstances through care and community as the killer slowly becomes part of the lives of others and experiences moments of happiness. This allows Sabu to insert some levity into the otherwise serious proceedings as we watch how Mr. Long’s neighbours, all quirky and good-natured individuals who set him up with a home and a cart from which he can sell Taiwanese ramen. As Jun and Lily draw him deeper into their lives, we see how he indulges in fun family activities such as making pottery and going to a hot spring at a temple complex with the two. While healing from his physical wounds, he slowly becoming a surrogate father to the boy and so both Jun and Lily heal from their own wounds.

Knowing his background, audiences will find the situation absurd and the film constantly teases his cover being blown but viewers will be secretly wondering, nay, hoping that he can put the killing to the side and focus on cooking. That is until the narrative is cleaved in half by an extended flashback for Lily. Sabu used a similar technique to transition the story to its bleak ending in his previous film, Happiness (2016), and it works here as we are reminded that the past still haunts both characters and realise that fate has connected them in a strange way.

The plot is simple and the direction similarly economical with much of the film being shot with a handheld camera that floats around scenes to establish an area and reveal characters who are succinctly sketched through dialogue. There are moments of repose as we consider how people change, not least the cold-blooded assassin and Chen gives an understated performance as the glowering stranger, which works wonders as he allows his cool-as-ice image to be subverted by people who don’t know him. This is best exemplified when he dons a t-shirt dedicated to the electro-pop group Perfume and the grimaces he gives over every well-meaning act of friendship that not only embarrasses him but risk exposing him to the yakuza. It becomes even more affecting in moments when he is with Jun and Lily and hovers on the periphery of their ‘family’, cracking a smile and showing some joy when he helps the boy make a connection with other kids over baseball. A potential romance beckons with the mother, providing hope that Mr. Long can beat his background.

The audience will rightly be watching with the expectation that it is a matter of when, not if, Mr. Long will have to reveal that he is a killer and when that bloody moment happens, the impact devastating. The film’s conclusion is bittersweet as we see how Mr. Long has softened and how much friendship meant to him. It results in him finally opening up emotionally, a moment of catharsis which will surely move the audience. Put aside the violence and the film offers a pure distillation of what we all hope for: a place to fit in, a way to give back to a community, and people to care about who also care about us.

Mr. Long is showing at the New York Asian Film Festival 2019 on July 8.