Review: Sleepless Town (1998)

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A modern film noir, with all the squalor and seediness that the pleasure district of Tokyo – the infamous Kabuki-cho – can bring to bear, Sleepless Town is a dark, moody thriller of ambitious proportions.

The culturally diverse cast and crew – Takeshi Kaneshiro as Keniichi Ryuu, a half blood Japanese Taiwanese, Eric Tsang as Cantonese crime lord Yuan and Lung Si-Hung as Kenichi’s adopted father and Taiwanese mob boss just to name a few – almost literally reflect the film’s premise. The Chinatown backstreets of Kabuki-cho are a hot pot of cultural groups, all vying for their share of economic territory, none of it legal. Kenichi slides smoothly through this political/social quagmire with the ease of a born and bred player whose survival has come to rely on the very thing that ostracises him – his mixed blood. As the film opens, life looks to be veering towards the guard rails with the return of Kenichi’s old partner to Tokyo. Mob boss Yuan is still out for blood over an unanswered murder of some unnamed subordinate for which Keniichi’s pal (played wonderfully and with some momentary poignancy by Kippei Shiina) is responsible, and expects Kenichi to turn his friend over or take the fall in his place. And, as with any decent noir genre story, that’s right about when in walks the dame.

The dame in question is Natsumi Sato (Mirai Yamamoto), who is running from the one person Keniichi needs to find if he wants to save his skin. Since Keniichi is known to buy just about anything (with few exceptions) Natsumi has a proposition for him, of the two birds with one stone variety, and it seems like fortuitous timing; possibly too fortuitous. Keniichi wasn’t born yesterday, and pretty soon it becomes apparent that the only time Natsumi can be trusted to tell the absolute truth is when her mouth is shut. Is Keniichi digging himself deeper by trying to play off rival syndicates in order to get out of this pickle without getting killed, or is he really more in control of the situation than he looks?

And that’s one of the biggest drawcards in Sleepless Town; that morbid fascination with watching a man balance on a highwire between opposing forces, and no net below, wondering if he’s going to fall. The narrative, adapted from a novel by crime fiction author Hase Seishu, whose name was recently associated with Takeshi Miike and the Playstation 2 game Yakuza, deftly measures each step in the act without much slacking off of tension, and Kaneshiro does a reasonable job of authenticating the brooding, cocky character of Keniichi. Yamamoto shines like a light as Natsumi; both vulnerable and effervescent, the perfect lethal dame of the detective thrillers of old, a pretty bit of trouble in high heels and a little black dress that the hero just can’t leave alone.

In line with the noir elements of the story, the outstanding cinematography of Arthur Wong has an almost perpetually dark, greasy feel to it, cut up with splashes of contrasting reflected neon. Sunlight is a rare commodity in this film, its protagonists preferring to fly mostly by night, and the effect is an almost palatable atmosphere of imminent danger, of mutable events that might never bear up to scrutiny during the day. The mix of languages, of social rules, grounds the complex script in the mundane, making what’s happening both more real and less accessible, and the occasional symbolism and repeated motifs add a dream-like sense to the increasingly crisis situation, giving surprisingly convincing life to Keniichi’s fringe-dwelling habits and habitat.

Surprising, because Sleepless Town is not precisely a ground-breaking example of a modern noir. Co-produced between Japan and Hong Kong, it tries to be a little too complex sometimes and the threads of the intricate power struggle going on in Kabuki-cho are a little too knotted to clearly follow. Luckily the love-hate romance going on between the principals is enough to carry the action whenever the greater plot gets too confused, and in the end, the film is satisfyingly, and perhaps even a little shockingly, concluded. Ambitious perhaps, for a relatively unknown, almost independent film, but with its slick look and unforgiving narrative, it doesn’t fail where it really matters – keeping you in your seat until the end, watching and waiting for the axe to fall, cheering for the underdog, and caring that this is one slightly shady character that is going to continue to do what he obviously does best; survive.

7 Idyllic Hotspring Hideouts out of 10.
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