You may not be familiar with the name of Katsuhito Ishii but if you’re at all intrigued by Japanese films, or rather some of the more outlandish and absurd films that exist in Japan, you’ve likely heard of Funky Forest: The First Contact at some point down the line. For some, it’s one of the weirdest films to ever grace screens and Ishii served as one of the directors on that film. One would imagine that similar films would dictate the direction of Ishii’s career and to an extent they have, as some of his earlier films can be considered offbeat and “uniquely Japanese”. Smuggler, one of Ishii’s recent efforts, is a continuation of sorts for Ishii’s bizarre eye in filmmaking.
Based on the manga of the same name, the film sees a failed actor who has fallen into debt take on a job that requires him to smuggle and dispose of corpses in order to pay back his debt. Of course, not everything goes according to plan and when he and his cohorts have to smuggle the body of an assassin, things go awfully awry. The film can be described as “Taratino-esque,” due to its chapter-based narrative, colourful cast of characters and its blend of hyperviolence and comedy though that is perhaps where the comparison between Tarantino ends. Unlike Tarantino’s films, nothing about Smuggler ever feels cohesive. Where Tarantino is able to mix violence and humour in a manner that’s thoughtfully utilized without sacrificing story or character development, Smuggler’s inserts of violence and humour do little to service the majority of the film. The tone of the film is all over the place, it loses a lot of momentum with its pacing and the majority of its characters are hardly interesting. The story of the film itself is so uninteresting that Ishii doesn’t give much reason for the audience to care about the characters’ plights. Another point to make about the film is its subplots as they open up far too many of these and either don’t conclude them satisfyingly enough or open them at unnecessary points. One such subplot involves the failed actor’s past where we see him as a struggling and shunned acting student though the film doesn’t tie this character’s arc very well. While one can chalk this up to being a poor manga adaptation – one that in all probability overlooks parts of a manga that mightn’t otherwise have made it into the final film – altogether it’s an extremely tough two hours to get through (around thirty minutes of which is spent on an unnecessarily long and discomforting torture sequence).
Aside from the bad though, some of the action scenes in the film are actually quite good and somewhat exciting though the use of slow motion could have been toned down just a tad (it’s not as heavy as something like Zack Snyder’s Sucker Punch but it still has the capacity to annoy). One such scene involving assassins, Vertabrae and Viscera’s fight in an apartment (at least according to the Australian copy of the film – different parts of the world, it seems, have different names for the assassins) is a highlight. In fact, the sequences where we see Vertabrae and Visecera are perhaps the best parts of the film as they’re really the only interesting characters throughout this entire thing. I’d love to see a film based on these assassins. Of particular note is the character Vertabrae, played by Masanobu Ando (perhaps best known to western audiences as the crazed maniac killer, Kiriyama, in cult classic, Battle Royale). Ando speaks Chinese for most of the film (his character is an assassin working for the Chinese criminal gang) which was a surprise to see and hear.
Unfortunately for fans of Katsuhito Ishii or fans of Funky Forest, Smuggler is a film that’s not quite worth fawning over. It’s neither fun nor exciting and has very little working for it other than a few choice action scenes and the characters of Vertabrae and Viscera. An otherwise forgettable film, Smuggler is one that you won’t need to rush towards.