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by Jay Seaver

"The yakuza are ever the same and always changing."
3 stars

SCREENED AT THE 2021 NEW YORK ASIAN FILM FESTIVAL: "Joint" is the sort of festival movie you grade on a bit of a curve - it's so thoroughly independent that even the middle-aged star is a complete newcomer and the strains on the filmmakers' resources are easy to see, but there's enough that feels new and unique done well enough that one is glad to have seen it. The film's flaws make themselves plain as it goes along, but it's filled with stuff worth giving a bit of attention.

It opens in somewhat familiar fashion, with yakuza associate Takeshi "Take" Ishigami (Ikken Yamamoto) being released from prison after two years. He takes a job doing construction from a reformed friend, but he's living in a motel until his parole is over and he can go back to Tokyo and his old work compiling lists of potential victims for the network's scammers, sourced in part by Korean immigrant Jung-Hi (Kim Jin-Cheol). It's a bit of a different world than when he went in - the crooks are making their cold calls from moving cars, the gangs are outsourcing more, and the investment he makes in a software start-up to launder his earnings may be his most successful job even if he doesn't really understand any of it.

For all that the director protested that this wasn't particularly influenced by other yakuza films, it nevertheless has a similar feel: From Battles without Honor and Humanity forward, at the very least, these movies have always been businesslike and dense with information; where the best-known films of this genre focus on gang leadership, director Oudai Kojima and writer Ham-R tend to cast their gaze a little lower on the totem pole. The film is pointed in examining how that milieu has changed, but then, these movies have been grappling with these gangs eyeing respectability for decades.

In fact, it arguably sticks too close to gangster tropes as it goes on. This genre has always been reflections of the legitimate world, and there's a neat angle here in how Take is effectively a contractor and the yakuza less the sort of loyal institutions that Japanese companies used to be (director Kojima grew up in New York, and I'm somewhat curious to what extent he's drawing from American versus Japanese experiences). The sharpest and most fascinating element may be how these scam artists and frauds are evolving into and merging with Big Data and venture capital, a new brand of hidden powers whose artificially-intelligent apps are direct correlations to Take's knack for pulling the useful items out of a mass of information. It's a parallel that intrigues but which Kojima and Ham-R can't quite make into a story, only lightly touching on what's going on at the software company and falling back on what's going on at the top of the gang during the last act, which isn't really important relative to what Take's up to.

And the audience is invested in Take, in large part because Ikken Yamamoto is a heck of a find. It's his first credited performance, let alone lead, but he walks through the film with a smile that's not just charming but signals that Take is completely at ease with who and what he is, cheerfully confused when his friend tries to get him to go straight and sitting in on business meetings with this perfect blend of ignorance and second-hand menace. There's an easy three-way chemistry between him, Kim Jin-Cheol and Kim Chang-Bak, work friends who split when it becomes clear just how amoral one is. On top of that, what seems like a side effect of indie film production and dicey continuity - Take's hair and the rest of his look changes between scenes as they're filmed weeks apart - becomes sort of meaningful, as his "legitimate" business takes the fore and he becomes a sort of chameleon even though he's clearly the same guy underneath.

The whole package isn't quite the sum of its best parts, but between Yamamoto and the angle Kojima takes in seeing the yakuza as something more specific than just corporate analogs, I'm hoping that someone with some resources sees "Joint" and decides to find out what this group can do with a budget, whether it's something along the same lines or not.

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originally posted: 10/09/21 14:16:26
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OFFICIAL SELECTION: 2021 New York Asian Film Festival For more in the 2021 New York Asian Film Festival series, click here.

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Directed by
  Oudai Kojima

Written by
  Ham R.

  Ikken Yamamoto
  Jin-cheol Kim
  Chang-bak Kim
  Keisuke Mitsui
  Sogen Higuchi

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