Dead or Alive

Elvis Mitchell of the NY Times had a hard time figuring out Takashi Miike's Hanzaisha (Dead or Alive), now showing at NYC's Cinema Village. Compared to other Asian gangster movies, he found it simultaneously boring and cartoonish. Perhaps his expectations were geared to the work of other better-known directors like Japan's Beat Takeshi, whose work Miike's bears a superficial resemblance to, or John Woo, whose combination of sentimentality and balletic shoot-out scenes can be seen in "Dead or Alive" as well.

In reality Miike is subverting this genre and not operating from within its parameters. Perhaps being a reviewer at the establishment NY Times prevented Mitchell from seeing the director's true intentions, which was not only to upset existing film conventions, but to deliver an apocalyptic world-view that is hardly comforting to somebody expecting conventional entertainment.

Three groups of men figure in "Dead or Alive." There are, first of all, the cops who are led by Jojima (Sho Aikawa), a laconic, impassive and tightly-wound figure who appears capable of enormous violence at the slightest provocation. As such, he probably was intended as a sort of homage to the characters played by Beat Takeshi in his own off-kilter films. Next, there are a group of gangsters who are 'zanryu koji'--Japanese children left in China after the war who return to Japan decades later only to find themselves unable to fit in. Even their children, as one character says, feel they are "like Japanese but not Japanese, like Chinese but not Chinese." They are led by co-star Riki Takeuchi, who not only bears a superficial resemblance to Chow Yun-Fat, star of many a John Woo film, but who also has the same kind of smoldering, introspective manner. The 'zanryu kojii' are caught in the middle between the cops and Yakuzas, who are not only trying to fend them off, but Chinese gangsters as well.

In "Dead or Alive", being Chinese or 'zanryu koji' is practically synonymous with a kind of turbo-capitalism that has its heart in a mainland China that rules on the basis of "naked, shameless, direct, brutal exploitation." In contrast, the Yakuza are hide-bound by tradition, who get by the way they have always gotten by: prostitution, gambling and drug sales. Meanwhile, the chief of police can be found on most days on the roof of the precinct building playing wooden flutes that he has hand-crafted himself.

Without a home and feeling no obligation to Japanese society, the small group of 'zanryu koji' decide to make their own place by trying to take over the Shinjuku underworld and the drug trade from Taiwan. They commit brazen acts of assassinations, rob a bank at noonday, then plan an all-out-assault on the remaining Chinese and Yakuza gangs.

"Dead or Alive" starts off with spectacular cross-cutting scenes of a naked woman plummeting to the pavement with a pound of cocaine in hand, a gay drug dealer being slit in the throat as he performs anal sex in a nightclub restroom, and a Chinese gang boss erupting noodles from his belly as it is riddled with bullets--all accompanied by a pounding guitar-heavy film-track.

However, much to the disappointment of Elvis Mitchell, most of the rest of the film consists of lower-keyed, if not funereal, scenes. The 'zanryu koji' have a picnic in a graveyard, where the mother of their boss lies buried, while rain falls on them. The cop Jojima is mainly shown at home, where his marriage is barely functional. His wife complains that he sleeps on the sofa, while his daughter is openly contemptuous of him. When he makes her a gift of a cell phone, she complains that it is not digital, just a "typical Japanese cop phone."

The sense of disconsolation is probably best conveyed through the scene in which a member of the 'zanryu koji' gang, in this case a native Chinese man, steals part of their bank robbery loot in order to finance relocation back to China for himself and his mother. When she asks him where he got all the money, he says she shouldn't worry. It is just to get them back home, where they belong. She answers that she doesn't want to go home again, making the film's leitmotif explicit.

In one scene, that I--alone in the audience--found richly comical, a college professor is lecturing a nearly empty hall about the crisis of Marxism, while students sit reading magazines or gossiping. The 'zanryu koji' gang leader sits slouched in his seat, waiting for his younger brother who is a student.

In the film's conclusion, the three groups once again square off and the film rockets off to its--literally--apocalyptic conclusion. While it makes no sense in conventional narrative terms, it is certainly meaningful in terms of the social and economic impasse of East Asia today.