They’re sexy! They’re reckless! They’re bohemian! They’re pistol-packing idealists forever swaggering toward the camera in John Woo-style slow motion! They’re … anarchistic agitators against Japanese imperialism in 1924 Shanghai? A most curious mix of sober historical subject matter and up-to-the-moment stylized excess, first Korea-China co-production “Anarchists” — which split the Audience Choice Award at Cinequest with “Sandstorm” — is basically a formula “outlaw” buddy pic that treats its radical political moment no more seriously than the “Young Guns” entries did the American West. Splashy, rich-looking entertainment will rep a guilty pleasure for Asian action-cinema fans, even if Yu Young-shik’s feature directing bow substitutes episodic hyperbole for a consistent narrative/character focus.
Five protags comprise a slightly renegade sub-sect of larger underground forces agitating against Japan’s invasive rule. Seregay (Jang Dong-gun) is the melancholy loner, his suicidal recklessness always welcome in a tight spot; Lee (Jung Joon-ho) is the group’s resident kinder, gentler conscience; cancer-ailing Han (Kim Sang-joong) is their cold-blooded master planner; Dol-Suk (Lee Bum-soo) supplies the hot-tempered muscle; junior member Sang-gu (Kim In-kwon), a wide-eyed arrival from the hinterlands, recalls this saga in voiceover as its sole survivor.
Pic jumps out of the gate with Sang-gu being rescued at the last minute from a public hanging. Vague Wild Western romanticism — with a little “Cotton Club” Jazz Age exotica and gangster-noir thrown in — remains dominant as pic ignores ideological motivation in favor of glam derring-do.
The quintet executes various bold terrorist actions, attempting to assassinate imperialist and Nippon-serving local authorities via machine-gun ambush, bombs, etc. One such operation leads to Seregay’s willing demise.
Eventually expunged from a larger anti-Nippon movement now focused on socialism, the anarchists seem at a loss as they have no particular political agenda. They try their (comic) hand at armed robbery, then decide on one last, suicidal mission against visiting high Japanese officials on a docked cruise ship.
Beyond the trivializing silliness inherent in treating resistance struggles as iconic action-pic fodder, pic’s biggest problem is structural: Characters are barely introduced before focus begins passing baton-like from one to another. Charismatic figure Seregay is set up as the central figure, only to get killed off early on, and emphasis on the remaining anarchists’ loyalty-unto-death bond carries little weight when they’ve been so rotely sketched as individuals.
Feature’s sentimental buddy-pic slant always seems at odds with fact that their terrorist acts con-stantly endanger innocent bystanders. Butch Cassidy & Co. they’re not.
If “Anarchists” lacks emotional resonance and cumulative excitement, it nonetheless works well enough as a straight up bullet-ballet. Director Yu pulls off the numerous splattersome setpieces with requisite flash.
Cast looks good, which is pretty much all that’s required. Period flavor is nicely captured in expen-sive-looking production design, though costumes, hairstyles, music and other details sometimes flaunt accuracy in service of contempo aud tastes. Kim Eung-taek’s creamy lensing sets the nostalgic, escapist if none-too-convincing tenor. Tech aspects are first-rate.