Hiroyuki Tanaka is one of Japan's brightest directors, but for some reason or another his films don't travel that well. With each new film he directs, one has to pray that someone, somewhere goes to the trouble of subbing and releasing it outside of Japan. I've yet to see Happiness (his 2016 effort) and some of the most prominent gaps in my personal film collection are directed by Tanaka, but at least I got to see Mr Long [Ryu San], Tanaka's latest production. I wasn't surprised to learn that it's another quality effort, one that truly deserves a wider audience.
Even though Tanaka can probably be coined as a genre director, he rarely conforms to a single genre. His films tend to be blends of different elements that live their own life, inexplicably coming together in a very sensible, logical way. Mr. Long is by and large a drama, but Tanaka's earlier experience in crime and comedy clearly shines through in places. If you want to compare it to one of his earlier films, Bunny Drop is probably the most suitable choice, though the crime elements in Mr. Long do get a more prominent place.
The biggest departure from Tanaka's earlier work is the main character, who isn't a Japanese citizen. It's generally quite rare to see Japanese films put foreigners front and center, but Tanaka's films have such a Japanese feel to them that the shift is really quite noticeable. To have someone from Taiwan lead the film gives Mr. Long a unique flavor, though the character itself (mostly silent, quite the enigma) couldn't have been more Japanese. It's a role someone like Tadanobu Asano would've aced, though it has to be said that Chen Chang does a pretty awesome job too.
The story revolves around the titular Mr. Long, a Taiwanese hitman who gets sent to Japan to kill a Yakuza member. His attempt fails, but he survives the confrontation and finds himself in a poor, rundown neighborhood where he has to survive until the next boat to Taiwan arrives. Some friendly neighbors help him out and while waiting to flee Japan, Mr. Long starts to build up a life he's not so keen to leave behind anymore. Even so, life in Japan isn't all roses and before long his past life catches up with him.
Tanaka rose to fame the during 90s and early 00s, looking at his latest film you can still see the traces of him growing into his own back then. It's not that Mr. Long looks outdated or old-fashioned, but styling, timing and camera angles reflect the acclaimed films of that time. It's a somewhat more sober, but also slightly classier look. The camera work is stark, the colors are sharp and the editing is very deliberate. It's a fine-looking film without any overbearing highlights, but nevertheless pretty to watch at all times.
The soundtrack is pretty much on the same level. Rarely does it demand a whole lot of attention (though there are one or two scenes, most notably the club/assassination scene), but it's always present and it plays an important part in regulating the rhythm of the film. Tanaka is somewhat of a wiz when it comes to soundtracks and his feel for music is clearly something he can't shake that easily. He's done better things in the past, but there's a baseline quality to his work with soundtracks that's far above what most directors will ever accomplish.
A director working with foreign actors is usually a recipe for disaster, so Tanaka was smart to pick a seasoned veteran for the lead. Chen Chang is by far one of Taiwan's best actors and with very little dialogue to wade through (and all in his native tongue), there's really not much of a barrier. That said, the challenge to give body to a reclusive yet enigmatic hitman remained and Chang did that with plenty of flair. Without a word he draws in the audience and makes them care. Not to easiest performance for people who have a hard time dealing with subdued Asian acting, but others are sure to love Chang's work here. The rest of the cast is fine too, but it's really all about Chang.
The first 15 minutes or so are a little hesitant, but once Mr. Long arrives in Japan the film comes into its own. The drama that is introduced is moving, the lightness of the plot makes sure it doesn't become too downtrodden and the crime elements are there to liven things up. It's a film that sneaks up on you and hits you quite hard during the final act. Not sure if I liked all the plot choices being made there, but on an emotional level the film manages to pull it off and that's all that really matters.
Hiroyuki Tanaka has become a true veteran and it shows. Mr. Long is a typical film by a confident director. A director who knows his core strengths while he continues to explore new ground, though mostly in the margin. This isn't a wildly different or experimental film, it feels like vintage Tanaka, but at the same time it's unlike anything he ever did before. Mr. Long is visually pleasing, it features a fine soundtrack and has a stellar lead actor that carries the film with ease. It's just an all-round impressive film that is sure to appeal to people who liked Tanaka's previous work.