Unlucky Monkey

A neat idea runs out of puff in "Unlucky Monkey," another offbeat yakuza riff by latest Japanese maverick Sabu that stands the genre on its head to ponder the meaning of life and existence. Trimming by a reel or so would benefit the former actor's third feature, which still has a lot going for it, even though its orbit is limited to fests and cinematheques.

A neat idea runs out of puff in “Unlucky Monkey,” another offbeat yakuza riff by latest Japanese maverick Sabu that stands the genre on its head to ponder the meaning of life and existence. Trimming by a reel or so would benefit the former actor’s third feature, which still has a lot going for it, even though its orbit is limited to fests and cinematheques.

Though shot in a more controlled style, pic’s opening – basically a 10-minute main title sequence – is as attention-grabbing as that of his debut movie, “D.A.N.G.A.N. Runner,” also centered on a botched robbery. Two guys, Nishida and Yamasaki, drive to stick up a bank, calmly chatting about the various reasons that crimes fail – from lack of will to a full moon. However, when they arrive, another robber runs from the self-same bank clutching a bag of yen which – through a rapid series of car accidents – flies through the air and ends up in the hands of Yamasaki, who runs for his life. Exiting from an alley, he bumps into a pretty young hairdresser and – in a beautifully judged sequence where time seems to stand still – accidentally kills her with a knife he’s carrying.

That’s the cue for an increasingly bizarre odyssey in which Yamasaki, a victim of circumstances, becomes trapped in a spiral of events that first turns him into a reformed soul but finally leaves him begging for death. Characters he meets en route include the dead girl’s relatives, a crazed assassin loitering in the street, and three leaderless yakuza who accidentally kill a clan head and bury him in exactly the same spot where Yamasaki has hidden his loot.

Scenes such as Yamasaki stumbling by chance into a citizens’ association meeting and ending up as their champion are blackly comic and reinforce the film’s skewed take on changing times in contempo Japan – from a lack of national pride to the passing of “the good old days” mourned by the klutzy, leaderless yakuza.

In between these highlights, however, there’s a mite too much flab in the sequences of Yamasaki communing with his own misfortune, as well as several o.t.t. moments (a vision of the dead girl, the resurrection of a “dead” gangster) that lack the precision of the movie’s best parts. With such a clever interlocking plot, less would most definitely have meant more.

Tech credits are fine on all levels.

Unlucky Monkey

(GANGSTER DRAMA -- JAPANESE)

Production: A Shochiku Co. release (in Japan) of a Cinema Japanesque, Shochiku, Suplex Inc. presentation of a Suplex production. (International sales: Shochiku, Tokyo.) Produced by Hidemi Satani. Co-producer, Yoshimitsu Honda. Directed, written by Sabu. Camera (color), Shuji Kuriyama; editor, uncredited; music, Daisuke Okamoto; art direction, Hayato Ohba; sound (Dolby), Hiroshi Yamagata; associate producer, Masato Osaki. Reviewed on Shochiku videocassette, London, May 3, 1998. (In Berlin Film Festival - Forum.) Running time: 106 MIN.

With: With: Shinichi Tsutsumi, Hiroshi Shimizu, Akira Yamamoto, Ikko Suzuki, Kimika Yoshino, Ren Ohsugi, Tomorowo Taguchi, Susumu Terajima.

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