Life in a Korean ghetto in Japan’s gang-infested Shimonoseki city is no bed of roses, according to the cockily amoral and unsparingly violent “Hard Romanticker.” With stylistic pizzazz and humor as dry as a shooter, writer-helmer Gu Suyeon makes his firsthand recollections of delinquent hijinks gleefully anarchic and consistently entertaining. Add to that an incorrigible hero (Shota Matsuda, oozing bad-boy sex appeal) who’s romantic in his thuggery, and the pic should pummel its way unopposed into genre fests and cult-action ancillary.
Viewers of Gu’s sophomore feature, “The Yakiniku Movie: Bulgogi,” a feel-good escapist celebration of Japanese-Koreans’ culinary heritage, will be ill prepared for the hardboiled nature of his new outing. Putting a briskly paced, visually dynamic spin on Gu’s own semiautobiographical novel, the pic starts impressively in media res as bleached-blond South Korean punk Gu (Matsuda) makes hair-raising leaps across rooftops with irate nasties in hot pursuit. Cut to another startling scene of a more sinister nature: Teenagers Tatsu (Kento Nakayama) and Masaru (Tokio Emoto) break into the home of their classmate Kim Chon-gil and brutally murder Kim’s grandma. That’s just a foretaste of what’s to come as the serpentine plot sets up more occasions for ultra-violence like a demented Punch & Judy show.
When Gu finally swaggers onto the scene, several loose fuses get blown. First, Gu wastes a young loiterer in the street, unaware that the guy’s brother Park Yong-ho (Kaname Endo) is a rising pro boxer in a rival North Korean gang. Then Gu runs off with a fetching femme in a sailor suit, Chieko (Sei Ashina), minutes after finding out that it was one of his off-the-cuff comments that goaded his sidekick, Masaru, and Tatsu into bumping off Kim’s grandma. Next, Gu is roped into safeguarding a key by Shoji (Kurodo Maki) a renegade yakuza member who’s been an uncle figure to him. Courting trouble the way a magnet draws metal, he rescues a schoolgirl from being gang-raped at a glue-sniffing orgy.
The chance to lie low and maybe make a clean break arrives via a new stint in the nearby city of Kokura, as manager of an upscale nightclub run by the shifty Takagi (Shidou Nakamura). But Gu’s indiscretions, as well as his own brand of principles, inevitably catch up with him. First to pounce is sly, case-hardened precinct cop Fujita (Atsuro Watanabe, “The Flowers of War”), who senses an all-out gang war is afoot and tries to cajole Gu into becoming his mole.
The director’s background in commercials serves the action well as he jazzes up the narrative with clever chronological tricks, at one point replaying the opening sequence mid-film in a longer, even more breathtaking sequence that provides relevant dramatic context. Throughout, the pic is riddled with senseless outbursts of violence that underscore the tough, squalid existence of this gangland minority; a reference point for auds unfamiliar with their historical grievances would be John Singleton’s “Boyz n the Hood,” although “Hard Romanticker’s” stance is nowhere near as moralistic. If anything, helmer Gu portrays the lads’ hotheadedness with deadpan amusement and glamourizes his alter ego, who gives as good as he gets. The truly grisly cruelty is reserved for the women, treated here in borderline-psychotic and misogynistic ways.
With his natural good looks and lean-and-mean physique, Matsuda has no trouble exuding louche charm, but his shell-like composure never cracks enough to allow for even the slightest emotional connection. Supporting thesps are over-eager to put on macho airs, but none comes within earshot of Matsuda’s star aura. Indeed, the specter of Matsuda’s actor father, Yusaku (who is half-Korean and also hails from Shimonoseki), haunts the action, giving the pic an additional dimension as an homage to the hard-edged ’70s actioners with which the legendary thesp is associated.
Hideyuki Bushu’s nimble lensing keeps pace with Kazuhisa Takahashi’s sharp editing and Kaoru Wada’s lively jazz score, while production designer Tomoharu Nakamae’s sets — all congested, ramshackle houses and working-class joints — convey the pungent, grubby flavor of the seaside city.