I'd be surprised if anyone really knows of The Shinjuku Incident, a new picture produced by and starring Jackie Chan. I only found out about it by noticing a poster linked on a few obscure cinema blogs, and I always figured its stateside release was years away. Interestingly enough, it's come to American theaters much earlier than I expected, albeit in an extremely limited release, on the shoulders of maverick distributor Barking Cow. It's currently playing at Loews Village 7 here in New York, and a few other places around the country.
The Shinjuku Incident is a hybrid of historical epic and crime saga, and like many Hong Kong classics, it's emotionally heavy and at times mercilessly violent. It starts with a shipwreck off the shores of Japan in the '90s, and the scattering of a hundred or so Chinese immigrants away form the authorities. Steelhead (Chan) is one of these illegal immigrants, and he manages to find his way onto the mainland, and through a bit of desperate resourcefulness, to find his young relative, Jie (Daniel Wu), who is already living there and working illegally. Like many Chinese at the time, Steelhead has been driven to Japan by economic hardship, but more so, he is following the call of lost love.
Steelhead is a proud, self-sufficient worker with a strong sense of loyalty and altruism, so he gains contacts and status within his community quickly. He learns the menial labor and petty crime that sustains the Chinese within Japan, but he isn't happy with this marginal space. In an attempt to improve both his and his community's status on the island, he reluctantly involves himself with the yakuza. The bulk of the film revolves around Steelhead's rise to power, and on his community's rise and fall within a marginal niche of Japanese society.
To get the obvious angle out of the way: The Shinjuku Incident is definitely a vehicle for Chan, both as a star and as a producer, and it does its job. His character, Steelhead, proves Chan's ability as a dramatic actor… although there isn't a great deal of range to the part, he's convincing as a conflicted blue-collar worker and a reluctant father figure to his adopted community. It's vastly different from his other roles, and I assure you, this is a good thing.
From the outset, The Shinjuku Incident is not a light movie. There is no choreographed kung fu with ladders or basketballs. It takes place in a seedy Tokyo with a violent streak, and this violence is not sugar-coated, with most conflicts ending rather suddenly in death or maiming. The film's moral ground is rough as well, and Steelhead exists in a gray area between loyalty to his people and a frustrating complicity in their corruption. It can be a difficult movie to watch.
The writing in The Shinjuku Incident can be a touch self-important, but this is nothing new for crime and action cinema. Meanwhile, the plot manages to be sweeping in scope, covering Steelhead's rise to leadership and touching on his personal history in China, reflecting an array of political turns and cultural changes. It's woven with two love stories and one tale of brotherhood; it's complicated, but never hard to follow.
As with any film that aspires to be "epic" in the length of a normal feature, there are some problems here. Steelhead himself is compelling, but we have to accept a number of his Chinese compatriots without really getting to know them. Other major characters — Jie, Xiu Xiu, Inspector Kitano, Egugi, and Lilly — are ambiguous as a substitute for complexity, and the various Yakuza are interchangeable.
However, these narrow sketches of individuals are redeemed by the characterization of the Chinese immigrant community as a whole. From its introduction, encapsulated in a small, overcrowded apartment, we are privy to its warmth and self-sufficiency, and the changes it undergoes are able to affect us emotionally. The final scenes of the film make it clear that the director was aware of this, and that these effects were intended.
The Shinjuku Incident tries to do a lot with its two hours, and it isn't quite the epic triumph that it's reaching out to be. However, it makes those two hours worth it. Jackie Chan's character is both endearing and tragic, and the stories he takes part in are sad, suspenseful, and enlightening. His film has a warm heart, shackled in the grip of a dark, violent criminal world, and though it may remain obscure for a while, it's a genuine cinematic success.