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Hard Romanticker
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by Jay Seaver

"Pretty good, but I'm not sure how hard it really romanticks."
3 stars

SCREENED AT THE 2012 FANTASIA INTERNATIONAL FILM FESTIVAL: Su-yeon Gu's "Hard Romanticker" is one of those movies that feels like it was cobbled together from a bunch of anecdotes that don't necessarily add up to a story, but is able to more or less able to get by on those tall tales being entertaining and the guy at the center having some charisma. It seems a bit like a patchwork, but works a lot more than it doesn't.

The center of most of these events is Gu (Sota Matsuda), a hood in Shimonoseki, Japan of Koeran descent with a blond dye-job. He's not actually involved in the opening break-in, where teenage punks Masaru (Tokio Emoto) and Tatsu (Kento Nagayama) accidentally kill the grandmother of North Korean gangster Kim Chon-gi (Yuya Endo), but he knows them and is thus a convenient scapegoat when Kim starts asking questions. In the meantime, he's got Detective Fujita (Atsuro Watabe) asking him for intel, a schoolgirl (Ayaka Tomoda) with a crush on him, and older gangster Shoji (Claude Maki) asking him to guard a coin-locker key. He also gets an offer from yakuza-connected Takagi (Shido Nakamura) to help manage a club in Kobura, where he winds up crashing with hostess Natsuko (Sei Ashina).

With its detached, youthful protagonists, pervasive criminality, and emphasis on atmosphere as much as plot, it's easy to see a kinship between Hard Romanticker and the French New Wave, or to stay in Japan, Nikkatsu's "New Action" cinema of the 1960s. The jazzy soundtrack and somewhat grainy cinematography help set the atmosphere, but it's the attitude that matches it the most; characters may get violent at the drop of a hat, but there's a sort of passive, observational feel even then. People don't start fights; fights happen as these guys move through their lives.

That said, Su-yeon Gu does an unusually good job of building these incidents into a story. Gu is one guy in a larger world that we don't always get a good look at - for as much as Chon-gi is a major force behind the scenes, Endo's screen time is fairly limited - and at times the movie deliberately throws the audience into the deep end along with Gu. But it's not even close to a first-person film, and part of what makes it feel like a story instead of just snippets put together is how the situation in Shimonoseki is building while Gu is off in Kobura, so that by the time he comes back to see his grandmother there's all this momentum slamming into him.

Shota Matsuda is up to that challenge, though; he gives Gu a charisma that at times actually seems like it annoys him. Gu seems irritated when he does the right thing despite there being no tangible benefit, like it doesn't match his generally fairly accurate assessment of himself as a loner. He flies into great rages and displays surprising wit on occasion. Aside from Matsuda, the ensemble is large but not particularly deep, especially when you consider that the best foils for - Shido Nakamura's Takagi and Sei Ashina's Natsuko - don't show up until later and have relatively little to do.

That kind of summarizes the movie's issues - it's only got one really memorable character who doesn't actually do much, and while little stories do pop up around him, they the movie will occasionally have a run of bits that aren't that great, or focus too completely on the secondary characters, or just never get resolved. It's not that the good bits are few and far between, but the other parts seem a bit superfluous and distracting when all is said and done. It ends on a "where are they now" bit for characters that didn't seem important at all.

That doesn't make "Hard Romanticker" a bad movie by any means, but it does hold it back from being a particularly memorable one. It's clever much more often than not, and those with a particular fondness for this sort of troublesome-youth movie likely won't be left cold nearly as much as I was.

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originally posted: 08/24/12 02:40:27
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OFFICIAL SELECTION: 2012 New York Asian Film Festival For more in the 2012 New York Asian Film Festival series, click here.
OFFICIAL SELECTION: 2012 Fantasia International Film Festival For more in the Fantasia International Film Festival 2012 series, click here.

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  DVD: 22-Jan-2013



Directed by
  Su-Yeon Gu

Written by
  Su-Yeon Gu

  Shota Matsuda
  Kento Nagayama
  Shido Nakamura

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