“The Most Terrible Time in My Life” is posited as the first in a three-part feature series following the adventures of Japanese private eye Maiku (Mike) Hama. Unlike his Western namesake, this “Hammer’s” efforts at stone-cold machismo perennially run awry. While narrative takes its time in catching hold, director Kaizo Hayashi (“Circus Boys”) has designed a striking package whose mix of hip humor, genre nods and visual oomph should travel quite well.
Title is a pun on “The Best Years of Our Lives” — the movie playing in a cinema whose projection booth doubles as the intrepid Hama’s Yokohama office. (Cranky box office personnel downstairs won’t let his clients pass unless they’ve bought a ticket.) With his hair slicked back, omnipresent sunglasses and cool threads, he seems the very model of tough-as-nails suaveness. Yet Hama spends an inordinate amount of time getting punched, kicked and shot by everyone in sight.
First such incident occurs when he steps in to protect a Chinese waiter from a quick-tempered customer in a mah-jongg parlor. His gallantry is admirable, his judgment less so, as a lopped-off finger soon must be retrieved from a dog’s mouth before reattachment surgery.
Such gruesome bits startle but work well amid sly, drily comedic tenor Hayashi contrives. Yet humor gradually recedes from centerstage as the real storyline emerges — Hama takes on case of finding the Taiwanese “waiter’s” apparently long-lost brother, only to find himself plunged into a dangerous thicket of Japan/China mob rivalries.
Once this scenario gets going, the sleuth himself is almost superfluous to action, despite Masatoshi Nagase’s droll performance; attention is riveted instead on the two brothers, played with magnetism to spare by Taiwan stars Yang Haitin and Hou de Jian. Their classic Catch-22 of conflicting family/mob loyalties climaxes in tense gun standoff that takes film into a deadly serious, even tragic new dimension.
Pic looks great, with b&w Cinemascope creating an early-’60s Nippon gangster-flick feel; striking, tilted compositions and chiaroscuro lighting effects add elements of noir homage as well. Use of music is sparing but witty, often reminiscent of themes for ’70s TV actioners like “Mannix.” All other tech aspects are tops.
While its coating of cineaste irony may make “Most Terrible Thing” less than a sure-fire commercial property, it looks ideal for cult status on the rep circuit. Pic wraps up with kitschy tinted footage ostensibly lifted from the next Mike Hama film, “Stairway to the Distant Past,” then ends on color shot of sleuth outside his cinema-cum-office.