On DVD: Shinjuku Incident

Shinjuku Incident is a surprising find: a solid, gritty crime thriller from Hong Kong starring Jackie Chan. Eschewing his cuddlier American image, Chan plays a quiet, single-minded Chinese immigrant who comes to Japan in search of a woman and instead finds power and influence. The film is both old fashioned and refreshing, skillfully directed by Tung-Shing "Derek" Yee, and consistently engrossing.

Among a boatload of raggedy, poor Chinese refugees, "Nick" (Jackie Chan) comes ashore at a Japanese beach and finds his way into Tokyo's Shinjuku district, one of the city's busiest business centers. After joining with his brother "Joe" (Daniel Wu) and a larger group of illegal Chinese immigrants, Nick sets out to fulfill the reason he left China: to find his long lost fiancée Xiu Xiu (Xu Jinglei). It doesn't take long for him to discover that she has since married a local crime lord, Eguchi (Masaya Kato). Eguchi leads one of several Yakuza gangs that have joined to form a larger syndicate; however, internal strife continues to pit the gangs against each other. When Nick tracks down a rival gang leader who has wounded Joe, he winds up saving Eguchi's life in the process. Eguchi allots Nick significant power and control over criminal enterprise in a Shinjuku neighborhood. Thus begins Nick's rise to power.

Shinjuku Incident weaves several other plot threads into what is ultimately a convincing character study and gripping thriller. Chan's performance as "Nick" (his character is called "Steelhead" in Chinese, and was inexplicably changed in the subtitles) is marked by a quiet, controlled sense of purpose. Nick only wants legal status and something resembling a regular life; it is only when circumstances call for it that he turns to crime in his search for peace and stability. After losing his fiancée, Nick's vision of the future is drastically altered, and all bets are off.

The script guides us through Nick's story while maintaining a potent, challenging contemporary perspective. The plight of Chinese immigrants and the state of Japan's criminal gangs are approached with a forthright confidence that suggests a real engagement with these issues on the part of the filmmakers. The brutal violence in the film seems a lot more like an outgrowth of a commitment to realism than a sensationalistic attempt to court controversy. (Shinjuku Incident was banned in mainland China for this reason.)

Swift direction from Derek Yee keeps things moving very quickly, with character moments interspersed with bursts of action. The widescreen photography by Nobuyasu Kita is particularly noteworthy; it utilizes creative lighting effects and is stylishly economical. There's nary an instance of visual overkill; the crew keeps the film at ground level. Even the blood that is spilled, copious though it is, doesn't spray in the firehose arcs used by other filmmakers working in similar modes. Shinjuku Incident is an accomplished film that reflects a highly-engaged production grappling with issues both personal and political in a seamless, confident manner. 

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