Shinjuku Incident Review
Only in HK could you find a martial arts film star who has gone on to become one of the most commercially successful and critically appraised directors in the industry, but this is what Derek Yee has achieved in just over two decades as a filmmaker. Ever since popping his filmmaking cherry with The Lunatics, a melodramatic but gutsy, challengingly bleak study of HK’s homeless mental health outpatients and the social workers who follow them, Yee has earned a reputation as a socially conscious dramatist who always aspires to look behind the curtain of HK subcultures, whether this is the main subject or background setting of his films. He explored the music industry on both the professional and street level in C’est La Vie, Mon Cherie, illegal street racing in Full Throttle, the Category III film industry in the extremely frank and personal Viva Erotica, and the world of private bus services in Lost in Time.
Recently he has been taking on Johnnie To at his own game by flitting between films about the HK underworld and romantic comedies/melodramas and has produced two impressive crime dramas with One Night in Mongkok and Protégé. The former examined HK Triad exploitation of Chinese mainland immigrants and the detectives who try and stem the tide of crime in the most densely populated district in HK. Protégé is the HK equivalent of Traffik, and intelligently examines the floundering heroin industry in HK. Yee’s latest film: Shinjuku Incident seems on paper to be the perfect subject material for him, once again examining Chinese immigrants in a densely populated region with a volatile mixture of organised crime factions, but this time it’s Japan and the Shinjuku region of Tokyo as its subject. What’s more, Jackie Chan is on board in an earnest effort to cast off the shackles of his family-friendly, all-action image by playing a character who has no martial arts ability and a rather murky morality.
Jackie plays Steelhead, a simple tractor engineer/farmer who leaves his impoverished village to sneak into Japan in search of his sweetheart Xiu Xiu, once in Shinjuku he meets up with younger brother figure Jie, who has already established himself within the Chinese community and welcomes Steelhead into this close knit world. When Steelhead discovers that that Xiu Xiu has married a powerful Yakuza Lieutenant named Eguchi, he abandons his dreams of reconciliation and embraces a life of petty crime on the streets of Shinjuku. When Jie is brutally assaulted by a local Taiwanese Triad boss, Steelhead attempts to exact revenge and instead ends up rescuing Eguchi from the Taiwanese gang. Eguchi is looking to grasp control of Shinjuku and asks Steelhead to assassinate two powerful Yakuza bosses in exchange for legal Japanese citizenship and control of the Chinese quarters of Shinjuku. Steelhead accepts and he and his makeshift Chinese family finally become masters of their own domain, but when Steelhead leaves control to his friends and concentrates on his own tractor business, corruption sets in and anti-Chinese sentiment amongst the Shinjuku Yakuza begins to rise and eventually drags Steelhead back into an underworld war.
Shinjuku Incident is an ambitious endeavour for Yee in that it he’s attempting to merge the themes of the likes of Sergio Leone, Johnnie To, and Kinji Fukasaku in creating an epic Crime drama that chronicles the early life, rise, creation, corruption, and fall of a makeshift Chinese family becoming a powerful organised gang, whilst at the same time looking at the political intrigue and moral bankruptcy of the Tokyo Yakuza. The problem is that he’s covering all these themes in two hours, which isn’t nearly enough time to do all these subjects justice. The end result is a drama that has the slickness and tightly focussed human drama that we’ve come to expect from Yee’s productions, but only when examining the Chinese subculture of Shinjuku, the Japanese elements of the story are really superficial and offer nothing beyond genre clichés and generic political wrangling. There are a couple of moments when Yee flirts with examining the upper echelons of the Yakuza and how they merge with the Japanese government and higher powers of the entertainment industry, but these intriguing moments are too fleeting and end up becoming nothing more than minor exposition.
By far the main focus of the narrative is on the formation of the band of Chinese immigrants that Steelhead befriends when he enters Shinjuku and their rise to power when Steelhead gets blood on his hands to ingratiate himself within Eguchi’s controlling Yakuza faction. For this act of the story Shinjuku Incident is pretty engaging and consistent in tone with Yee’s previous work as a character drama examining the bonds of friendship between individuals forced together by circumstance. For the most part characterisation here is at its strongest, with Steelhead having a rich and classically elaborate character arc, but there are also moments of clumsy characterisation as well, mostly in how Jie becomes the victim of crime himself in a couple of very contrived scenarios. Ironically the problems occur when this first act in the immigrant’s story reaches its most interesting point: Steelhead achieves control of the Chinese quarters of Shinjuku and attempts to form a union of sorts where the immigrants are no longer troubled by gang violence, but walks away and instead this union descends into just another triad faction in Shinjuku. This is where the supporting character arcs are supposed to reach their culmination, but instead Yee completely glosses over their corruption in order to concentrate on Steelhead’s withdrawal from crime, and when he returns to this gang world all the characters are changed men and their actions appear quite irrational because Yee has not fleshed out their change in morality. Instead he attempts to gloss over this problem by ramping up the action, which helps the pacing of the final act but doesn’t fill the void in character development.
Would Yee have concentrated so heavily on Steelhead if Jackie Chan wasn’t cast in the role? Maybe not, and Shinjuku Incident would have benefitted greatly by focussing more on the supporting roles but at the same time I really cannot completely fault Jackie’s performance. It’s not the first time he’s taken on a straight dramatic role, but I’ve always considered Jackie to be a chronic over-actor that stems from his idolisation of silent performers. Yee however has a proven track record with bringing out great performances from his stars and he successfully reins Jackie in here and gets an assured and subtle performance from him. The only real complaint I have with Jackie’s portrayal of Steelhead is that you never doubt the character has altruistic motives; everything he does is for the benefit of his peers, even when he’s committing the most severe of sins, and this lack of ambiguity can be a little boring. The supporting cast are just as assured, except for Daniel Wu who as Jie is stuck with a rather annoyingly meek then annoyingly aggressive character, the role would have benefitted from either a more charismatic or intense actor, neither of which is Wu’s forte. An actor who is extremely charismatic is Naoto Takenaka who plays Kitano, the police inspector Steelhead forms an uneasy alliance with. His performance makes this character far more engaging than the script allows for, leaving you wishing he had a larger role in the film.
Shinjuku Incident reminds me of a lot of many contemporary Hollywood crime dramas, of which American Gangster is a good example, where a talented director approaches an intriguing subject with excellent production values, but taken a rather superficial approach with too much emphasis on the trite rise to power of a gang leader when the more intriguing elements were the dominos effect of that rise. I wanted to see how Chinese crime affects the day-to-day running of Shinjuku and who really pulls the strings behind the Yakuza in Yee’s film just as much as I wanted Ridley Scott’s film to focus on the inter-politics of the corrupt NYPD, Mafia, and Frank Lucas’ drug trade in New York. I guess both films were destined to engage but ultimately underwhelm me. Shinjuku Incident is a decent crime drama, but with a more epic approach I can’t help feel that it could have been a great one.
PresentationMost of the time reviewing Blu-ray discs is a boringly monotonous affair because studios generally do a pretty solid job, but every now and then you receive a title that presents you with a real curveball. For instance this release presents the film in 1080p at 2.35:1 using the AVC codec on a BD-50 disc with a reasonably high video bitrate average of 30.40Mbps and yet this is one of the most badly encoded transfers I’ve seen in HD. There’s video noise in practically any segment f even colour tone throughout the film and banding is pretty much omnipresent. Black levels too are very poorly defined and the amount of noise in shadows is unacceptable – even the black borders frequently exhibit dips in black levels (they’re often covered by bluey-black patches) and blocking. Contrast levels are quite high and the image generally looks crushed, leading to lots of blooming in daytime sequences and a distinct lack of shadow detail at night. It’s a strange effect as the image looks like the blacks have been crushed then poorly encoded on disc so they no longer show up as true black, instead serving up a murky soup. Brightness levels are also a touch high but appear more naturalistic.
Shinjuku Incident’s colour scheme varies wildly depending where each scene is set, but mostly it’s a highly saturated rather vibrant display of colour. I don’t know if HK filmmakers are boosting the colour tone of their digital intermediates or not but this transfer is very similar to how Connected looked on BD, with rich golden hues pervading; leading to excessively yellow skintones and colour tinged blacks. I prefer the more neutral tones of night time Shinjuku, which look much more natural, but in daytime this is a richly colourful transfer that only exhibits minor colour bleed. Detail is pretty solid, this isn’t the sharpest transfer on the medium and the image generally has that flat over-sharpened HD look, fine detail is satisfying enough though. There are close-ups that appear to lack detail, which would suggest DNR has been applied. Edge Enhancement halos are pretty noticeable at times, ranging from very light to thick and bright, similarly grain levels also seem to flip from a rather sharply defined light layer to a moderate blanket. This is the kind of transfer that may look pretty good on a regular LCD/Plasma display, but on a larger projector screen its flaws are evident.
You can view an example of the noise/black levels issue below, the image on the left is the original frame, the one on the right is brightness boosted so you can see how the black borders exhibit those bluey-black patches, on a large projecter screen these blocky, blue areas are very distracting as they dance constantly through the film:
There are three audio options available on the disc: LPCM 7.1, DTS-HD MA 7.1, and Dolby TrueHD 7.1; all of which are in the original Chinese audio (I say Chinese because there’s a mixture of Chinese dialects used in the film, naturally alongside a lot of Japanese as well). All three formats are lossless and the resolution of each track is 16-bit, so there’s absolutely no point in having three options at all. I found that the only perceivable difference between the tracks is in audio volume only, with the LPCM track being noticeably louder than the other two so I will simply talk about all three tracks as one here:
The audio is a significant improvement over the video, the deep rich bass levels adds weight to the action sequences and fullness to the deep Japanese vocal tones, while solid treble response and excellent audio dynamics smoothly brings out every element of the soundtrack with strong clarity. Dialogue is always audible but does tear a tiny bit in a couple of scenes when characters are screaming, but this could easily be down to the original recording. The soundstage is suitably expansive, bringing the crowded Japanese locations richly to life.
Optional subtitles are provided in English, Chinese (Traditional + Simplified), Indonesian, and Malay. The subtitles are placed half in the 2.35:1 frame and half out.
ExtrasEmperor have packaged this Region A HK Blu-ray with a sturdy, attractively designed booklet that provides film information and photos in Chinese only, it’s a very welcome extra feature in itself. As for the actual disc extras, they’re all provided in standard definition on a separate R3HK DVD. Most importantly, every extra comes with optional English and Chinese (Traditional + Simplified) subtitles; here’s a rundown:
Making Of: This is a fairly standard but engaging making of featurette that highlights the complicated hybrid nature of the film’s production, and while the interview footage is solely with the main cast they provide enough insight into all aspects and challenges of the film’s Japanese shoot. At just 16mins though I wish it could have been twice as long and provided interview footage with Derek Yee.
Trailer: This appears to be the film’s original theatrical trailer, which is full of spoiler footage and presented in anamorphic 2.35:1.
Teaser: Now here’s the strange one, the menu says teaser but this is in fact the exact same theatrical trailer, only this time presented in non-anamorphic 2.35:1.
International Trailer: Self explanatory. This trailer is comedy gold, with one of the cheesiest “In a land....” voiceovers you’ll ever hear, the voiceover script is hilarious.
TV Spots (15s/20s/30s): Another set of self explanatory features, despite their short length these teasers are almost as spoilerific as the theatrical trailer!
Alternate Scenes: Extended cuts of two scenes from the film that don’t really alter the flow or tone of the scenes much at all.