Masculin/Feminin: Shinjuku Incident + Retro Drag Revue at Marlena’s
When we arrived at the multiplex, the ticket booth marquee listed Shinjuku Incident merely as “Jackie Chan.” But when is a Jackie Chan movie not a Jackie Chan movie? When it’s directed by Derek Yee, the veteran Hong Kong filmmaker who’s known for both his hard-edged crime thrillers (Protégé; One Nite In Mongkok) as well as his sensitive melodramas (C’est La Vie, Mon Cherie; Lost In Time).
Yee’s one of the best commercial filmmakers currently working in the former Crown Colony and his films are known for an attention to character development, an intensity of emotion, and an affinity for the lives of ordinary, downtrodden people. Shinjuku Incident, which Jackie Chan produced as well as starred in, is no exception, with extreme violence alternating with sympathetic and realistic glimpses into the quotidian existences of its various characters. Although nominally a Jackie Chan vehicle it’s really a Derek Yee movie that happens to star the martial arts superstar, and both Yee and Chan do a good job sublimating Chan’s matinee idol persona in favor of a more serious dramatic characterization.
Jackie Chan plays Steelhead, a Chinese illegal immigrant living in Tokyo’s heavily Chinese Shinjuku district. He’s there to search for an old flame but falls in with other down-on-their luck Chinese, eventually getting involved with petty crimes and tangling with the Tokyo underworld. Shinjuku Incident is definitely not your typical Jackie Chan movie—there are no outrageous stunts or choreographed fight scenes and the film hews pretty closely to a gritty and realistic mis en scene. Steelhead is a real character, not just a variation on the Jackie Chan persona, although occasionally he succumbs to movie star vanity. For instance, although Chan looks every bit his fiftysomething age, both of his love interests (including anime-girl come to life Fan Bing Bing) are women in their late twenties. Probably a perk of executive producing the film, I suppose.
But for the most part Chan suppresses his star status and blends seamlessly into the narrative. He’s aided by a strong supporting cast, with veterans such as Chin Kar-Lok (Young and Dangerous; Full Alert), Lam Suet (from the Johnnie To stable), and Jack Gao (Taiwanese heavy extraordinaire) adding gravitas to the proceedings. The East Bay’s own Daniel Wu is also good as Steelhead’s ill-fated buddy Jie, although the poor schmuck gets his third severe beatdown in as many Derek Yee movies. Wu transforms effectively from a timid pretty boy into coke-sniffing clockwork orangey punk who channels Heath Ledger’s Joker, complete with facial scars and smeared lipstick, as well as a crazy silver fright wig.
Unlike most pre-1997 Hong Kong productions, Shinjuku Incident doesn’t focus narrowly on the city of Hong Kong and the provincial interests of its denizens. Instead, like Johnnie To’s Exiled and Fulltime Killer, the film looks beyond Hong Kong’s narrow confines and considers the lives and existence of the Chinese diaspora that Hong Kong residents have only started to realize they belong to.
In a departure from the typical Hong Kong film, the Chinese characters in Shinjaku Incident are not the top dogs but are relegated to second-class status. Although set in Japan and directed and financed by as well as starring mostly Hong Kong natives, the film’s main characters are from the PRC, not Hong Kong, and the dialog is primarily in Mandarin, with smatterings of, Cantonese, Taiwanese and yakuza-style guttural Japanese. Even native HK performers like Jackie Chan and Lam Suet play Mainlanders and speak in putonghua.
This might be indicative of the general angst that many HK residents have been feeling in the decade or so since 1997’s reunification with China, which is succinctly reflected in not one but two different scenes featuring a severed hand. Talk about castration anxiety—
Postscript: As an interesting contrast to the hypermasculinity on display in Shinjuku Incident, afterwards we stopped by Marlena’s to catch its fabulously retro drag show, The Hayes Valley Follies, hosted by Empress Galilea–the revue included awesome performances by drag queens including Chablis, Chenelle, and Anna Mae Cox. Old-school touches included lip-syncing to disco classics old and new (including Lady Gaga, Whitney Houston and, yes, Gloria Gaynor’s I Will Survive), impossibly arched eyebrows, lots of sequins and fringe, and expert tucking. It was as if the Popstitutes’ smart-ass postmodern punk rock drag never existed and we were time-warped straight back to 1975. Not that I’m complaining, of course—
UPDATE: Shinjuku Incident has just been nominated for Best Picture and Derek Yee for Best Director at this year’s Hong Kong Film Awards, to be announced on April 18.
Bonus beats: Empress Galilea tears it up at Marlena’s