There’s a tradition, if not a huge one, of movies that feature heroes who are too cool to speak. In the Sergio Leone spaghetti Westerns, Clint Eastwood wasn’t just the Man with No Name, he was the Man of (Almost) No Words, and that served him fine. The title character of “Mr. Long,” played by the fiercely charismatic Chang Chen, is very much in the same mold. He’s a Taiwanese hitman so fearless and lethal that he uses blades instead of guns — he’ll enter a roomful of gangsters and take them all down with a six-inch knife, as though he were the Bruce Lee of cutthroat stabbing. In Tokyo, though, one of his assignments goes awry, and he escapes, injured, and finds refuge in a dilapidated section of town, where Jun (Runyin Bai), a young boy, brings him clothing and water. He winds up hiding out there for a few days with Jun and his mother, Lily (Yiti Yao), a former prostitute and junkie, and that’s the whole movie, except for this: The entire time, Long barely says a word, because he doesn’t have to — he’s too stylishly macho to show his feelings. The ultimate measure of his coolness is that they come through anyway.
If that sounds like an eccentric idea for a two-hour-and-nine-minute movie, “Mr. Long” takes a bit of getting used to. At first, it just seems minimal and a tad sluggish. We keep waiting for the drama to get rolling, for scenes to start up. After a while, there’s a flashback to Lily’s life as a prostitute, when she fell for one of her pimp’s soldiers and got pregnant, which turned out to be a form of tempting fate (her lover wound up with his face smashed). She then had an affair with an underworld skeeve who got her hooked on heroin.
This whole sequence, as well, is staged with virtually no dialogue. In spirit, “Mr. Long” could almost be a silent movie; it’s like a Chaplin fable (“The Kid” or “Limelight”) with a touch of Takeshi Miike’s splatterific psychodrama. The director, Sabu, once starred in a Miike film (“Ichi the Killer”), which may be why he steals a few gambits from him. Though no one says much, the style of “Mr. Long” isn’t silent. If anything, it echoes the fractious ’70s street naturalism of Sidney Lumet, with vivid sound and a heightened long-lensed clarity. There’s plenty of traffic noise, and a few minor tidbits of talk here and there, especially when Jun’s boisterous and bickering neighbors show up. Yet “Mr. Long” creates the essence of its drama with a bare minimum of words, and that’s the key to its appeal. It’s a stubbornly humane movie that carries you along with its feeling and originality.
The main thing Long does, apart from assassinating folks, is cook. He’s counting down the days before he can take a boat back from Yokahama to Taiwan, and to get the money to pay for his trip, he sets up a food stand called — wait for it — Taiwanese Beef Noodle. Sabu, who is clearly a fan of “Tampopo,” shoots Long’s laid-back kitchen mastery with a Zen appreciation for the qualities of mouth-watering cinema. It’s not just that the noodles and dumplings and broth look delectable. It’s that they’re Long’s form of nurturing, his way of pouring love into everything he does.
It’s Chang Chen’s performance that really makes the movie work. Chang, who starred 26 years ago in Edward Yang’s sublime “A Brighter Summer Day” and has had roles in “Happy Together” and “Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon,” is still youthful, with a great shock of hair and the kind of deadpan sleek mystique that Johnny Depp used to be able to bring off (before his persona got overloaded with star baggage). Chang is poker-faced throughout “Mr. Long,” but it’s as if he’s communicating telepathically; he makes his impassivity speak. When Long, Jun, and Lily start to form a surrogate family, your first thought is “Gimme a break,” but by the time Long pushes Jun onto a Little League team you may be wiping away a tear.
It’s a sentimental movie, to be sure, though with a darker turn or two than you’re expecting. It’s also a little long; the producers might think about trimming it down for an American release. Yet “Mr. Long” has art-house potential, because it’s genuinely touching, and also because Sabu, as a filmmaker, has that rare and unmistakable thing: a voice. He goes his own way, and in “Mr. Long” the audience is only too grateful to follow.