Writer/director Gu Su-yeon's "Hard Romanticker" is a tough film to digest. On the surface, it's a unique brand of Yakuza film, focusing on Korean-Japanese immigrants and their experiences in the Japanese underworld. What makes the film even more intriguing is it's actually the semi-autobiographical tale of the writer/director. Within the first few minutes of the film, any viewer with common sense would realize that a huge emphasis should be placed on the "semi" portion of that claim. Japanese TV star, Shota Matsuda serves as the nearest thing the film has to a protagonist, as Gu, the character I assume we're to believe represents the film's captain.
The underlying problem with "Hard Romanticker" is the massive disconnect between reality and an obsession with repugnant violence that quickly draws comparisons to Yakuza films from Takashi Miike. "Hard Romanticker" is an absolutely tough film to stomach and all the while, there's a horrific feeling of realizing, some of the most awful acts of violence in this film actually happened. The difference between Gu Su-yeon's film and anything from Takashi Miike, is Miike's films have a script that have (despite appearances) logic to them and an ultimate conclusion. "Hard Romanticker" exists in a narrative world of muddled motivations, an incredibly poor first act where numerous characters appear but are never properly introduced and editing issues that we don't realize fully exist until later in the film (for instance, the film's opening scene is actually a flashback, but nothing makes this wholly apparent). Ultimately, the film follows Gu as he moves from a short-tempered low-level street thug, to a mid-level, shorter-tempered thug running a prostitution racket for a high-level crime boss. In the meantime, numerous rival factions are out for Gu's blood and the collateral damage is absolutely astonishing.
While "Hard Romanticker" is incredibly stylish and does contain a muddled theme that despite "romantic" appearances, a life of crime is hollow and empty, the film's celebration of violence at times feels pointless and exploitative. Women are objects of abuse throughout the film, continually finding themselves the victims of physical and sexual assaults over and over again. In one of the film's most reprehensible acts of sexual violence, the director clumsily tries to give us catharsis by having our protagonist stop the act at the eleventh hour while brutally beating the attackers with a motorcycle helmet, but any primal sense of retribution is erased when the victim is left cowering to the side of the frame, reduced to merely an excuse for yet another ultra-violent moment in the film. Towards the film's final act, the sight of someone getting hit in the head with a bat or pipe becomes all too familiar to the point of parody, but nothing else tonally indicates parody is intended.
"Hard Romanticker" will only appeal to the most seasoned genre fans and even then, it is a narrative mess, only managing to get by on a seasoned visual style and performances that rise above thin plotting and clichéd dialogue. Gu Su-yeon does succeed in leaving those who can stomach the film's violent, unredeemable world, with questions to ponder; first and foremost being, how much was true and how much was embellished. Ultimately, "Hard Romanticker" feels like a personal message being told through highly exaggerated circumstances, and sadly will likely exist as a wrongly intentioned twisted cult classic.
The 1.85:1 anamorphic widescreen transfer features noticeable, moderate digital noise/grain, against a cold urban color palette. Contrast levels remain very natural, albeit a little intense in truly dark scenes. There's a mild amount of edge enhancement and detail varies from sequence to sequence, with studio work feeling more cinematic than on-location shots.
The Dolby Digital Japanese 5.1 audio track is a solid, loud offering, with decent surround work. Dialogue has the tendency to feel slightly hollow at times, although the low-end has some surprising kick at times and offsets this odd occurrence. English subtitles are included.
The extras include the film's trailer and a paper booklet featuring an essay on the film, as well as information on other Yakuza films throughout Toei studios' history.
Technically competent, but burdened by a messy narrative and repugnant set pieces, "Hard Romanticker" is best appreciated by genre fans, rather than casual observers. It pulls no punches with its violence, but falls into the trap of backhandedly glamorizing the repulsive; at minimum the film could have been more deliberate in its themes, rather than send mixed messages in a personal story. Rent It.