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Hard Romanticker – Review

by Miguel Douglas

@isugoi

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Gu is a hard-nosed Korean-Japanese hoodlum living in Shimonoseki, Japan. When friends “accidentally” kill the grandmother of a ruthless North Korean-Japanese thug, a whirlwind of violence and revenge is set to explode. In the process, Gu, having no fear, pisses off a string of other criminal gang members and Korean-Japanese thugs who all want him dead. There’s also Detective Fujita lingering in the shadows looking for Gu, but where is Gu? Meanwhile, Gu lucks his way into a managerial job for a hostess club, run by a suave man named Takagi. Instinct tells Gu that Takagi is more than he seems. In fact, Takagi works for a rival gang and may be involved with drugs. When Gu returns to Shimonoseki all hell is about to break loose.

Those accustomed to the yakuza film genre will feel right at home with director Su-Yeon Gu’s Hard Romanticker, a hard-hitting film that combines the savagery of the yakuza lifestyle with that of a dark comedic flair, which is surprising to see giving the central focus of the film—that of ethnic Koreans residing in Japan. In regards to this approach, the film looks at the ethnic Koreans that exist within the criminal organizations that populate Japan, detailing the retaliatory motives and brutal violence that is exerted to control and dominate both metropolitan territories and individuals. Director Su-Yeon Gu, with only three films to his name, has always been one to look into the truthful realities of being an ethnic Korean living within Japan—the hardships, challenges, and difficulties that they face within such a social structure. Whether this is seen in his previous films such as Worst by Chance (2003), in which the wandering lifestyles of a group of ethnic Koreans living in Japan longing to return to Korea are shown, to The Yakiniku Movie: Bulgogi (2007), which showcased the food culture of Japan’s Korean population in an insightful light, Su-Yeon Gu has often provided a vivid look into the Korean culture that exists within a contemporary Japanese landscape.

With this in mind, Hard Romanticker is first and foremost a film about the cruelty that is often exhibited within the framework of criminal organizations rather than extensively examining any of the social issues that plague the Korean community within Japan, as other films have strived to do so in the past. This may come as a surprise to those viewers expecting such an examination considering Su-Yeon Gu’s previous films, but that is not the case here. While we might get the occasion discriminatory remark from a native Japanese to that of one of the Korean characters, the film is more concerned with showcasing the reciprocal measures that are expressed within the criminal underworld in a small, minute section of Shimonoseki, Japan. We are given characters that are already heavily involved within the hierarchy of the criminal world, where the normality of vicious beatings, rapes, and murders coincide with the characters everyday activities essentially being brutish thugs.

Given such a focal point, the film is surprisingly humorous considering the rather menacing circumstances that the film’s characters find themselves in. At times this can be very oft putting, as characters are brutally beaten to a pulp, half dead but still able to get that last, funny quip in. Su-Yeon Gu handles this comedic aspect with great ease, bringing about the dark nature of the film’s narrative with elements of humor that provides a nice balance between the two. Unfortunately, this balance soon falls to the wayside as callous violence takes over as the film nears its conclusion. This is where Hard Romanticker removes itself from being a creative take on the yakuza genre to that of simply becoming a rather mediocre, contrivable tale of revenge and last man standing barbarity. It’s not that this wasn’t a logical choice given the obnoxious and carefree nature of a majority of the film’s characters, but it’s a route that is all too familiar to those understanding of the genre as a whole. Harking back to earlier films of the genre that relied specifically on the showcasing of violence and sexuality to promote their narratives, Hard Romanticker presents said elements in a rather unoriginal fashion. This appears primarily in regards to the expression of women within the film, all whose roles are delegated to that of simply being sexual objects to men. While bordering on being ridiculously misogynistic—the narrative itself is already disturbingly misogynistic enough—the film just seems openly apparent towards its hatred of women, dehumanizing them to merely being expendable background props to be abuse both physically and sexually. Save for Gu’s grandmother—whose role is inconsequential at best—there really is no appreciable role to be found for any woman within the film.

Despite this odd directorial approach, one of the strongest aspects of the film is Shota Matsuda’s portrayal of the gangster Gu. With a pretty boy face and attentive demeanor, Matsuda gives an enthusiastic performance that is a brutal as it is impressive to watch. His character of Gu is not a nice guy in the slightest—rather detestable considering some of his actions within the film—but Matsuda really enlivens the character with enough gusto to make his antagonistic flair enjoyable to watch. This is definitely surprising to see because Matsuda hasn’t often played villainous roles in the past, but here is seems so comfortable in a role that is rather unlike him both personally and career wise. Director Su-Yeon Gu doesn’t provide Matsuda’s character of Gu with much room for us to sympathize with him—which somewhat alienates our ability to care for his outcome. Gu is a vicious gangster who essentially tramples anyone who gets in his way, with Matsuda nicely expressing that ruthless nature in an effective manner. There really is not emotional investment towards him—or any character for that matter—which doesn’t help the narrative in any generous way.

In conclusion, Hard Romanticker is a film that is definitely not for everyone. While coupled with elements of humor, the film is often very graphic in what it attempts to convey in regards to violent behavior. While this is often a typical association with other films stemming from the yakuza film genre, Hard Romanticker is overtly harsh at times, offering no sympathy towards practically any character within the film. And while director Su-Yeon Gu does once again look into the livelihoods of the ethnic Korean population within Japan, it’s not nearly as extensive as his previous films. Here we see him using such a population as merely a device in which to base his characters within, a choice that could’ve provided opportunity to expand upon but simply doesn’t. Considering this, Hard Romanticker remains a very interesting film for what it does right in regards to its black humor, but one could easily see that the film relegates itself to the same tired tropes seen in past, superior films of the genre, producing an experience that doesn’t exactly attempt to bring anything new to the cinematic world of the yakuza, which is quite unfortunate.

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Author: Miguel Douglas

As an avid viewer of both Japanese animation and cinema for more than a decade now, Miguel is primarily concerned with establishing a critical look into both mediums as legitimate forms of artistic, cultural, and societal understanding. Never one to simply look at a film or series based solely on superficiality, Miguel has dedicated himself towards bringing awareness to Asian entertainment and its various facets.

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