Mr. Long: Written and directed by Sabu. Starring: Chen Chang, Runyin Bai, Yiti Yao, Sho Aoyagi, Masashi Arifuku. Running Time: 128 minutes.
Perhaps the best way I could describe the character of Mr. Long is this; imagine if John Wick were Taiwanese, and could cook? I know, it sounds a bit trite already to compare unstoppable hitmen characters to one of the best original action figures of the 2010s, but it really does fit here. Mr. Long is impossibly good at what he does, stoic and cold in his bearing, and seemingly occupies a niche place within a dark, desperate world.
Mr. Long is sent out of his native Taiwan for a hit in Tokyo, which goes terribly wrong, but through a series of coincidences that only later become clear, he’s able to escape (barely). He finds his way to what appears to be a shantytown of sorts, where the child of a smack-addicted Taiwanese woman finds him, brings him food and clothes, and eventually befriends him. Mr. Long expects to merely have a few days to gather cash for a smuggling trip back to Taiwan, but he’s soon swept up in the fervent daydreams of a coterie of older Japanese living nearby; after learning just how good a cook Mr. Long is, they decide that he obviously must open a noodle stand near the temple, and plan everything out with nary a word from him.
What starts out as a graphic gangster film then turns into screwball comedy, as the silent, stoic, and (seemingly) emotionless Mr. Long finds himself dragged inexorably into the daily lives of the child that saved him, his troubled mother, and these hilariously pushy, borderline exploitative (scratch that- extremely exploitative) neighbors. This is exacerbated by the fact that he can’t actually speak Japanese, and so mostly has no idea what these people around him are babbling about.
The film is anchored by a riveting performance by its lead actor. For all his stern silence, he conveys worlds with every hardened glance at the world around him. This is clearly someone who, long ago, learned of all the harshness of life, and can never be intimidated by it again. This tough outer shell of his only cracks twice throughout the entire film, but boy, when it finally does happen, it is a genuine sock in the gut.
As chipper as the old folks are, though, and as adorable as the kid is, lives of gangster violence and drug addiction invariably create pasts that can never be fully left behind. Pressed by Mr. Long’s forceful personality, the kid’s mother starts to pull herself into sobriety, only to be challenged at a crucial moment later on, and it’s in diving back into her story that the film inevitably returns to its dark origins. This is a movie that goes unflinchingly into some hard territory, including severe drug addiction, depression, and suicide, and the mother’s powerhouse performance anchors those parts of the film that leave Mr. Long himself in the background for a time. Her fate ends up being tied back into how the film started, and how Mr. Long was saved in the first place, but going beyond that would constitute major spoilers, and this is a film well-worth experiencing on your own.
Winding through all this at the same time that retired do-gooders are obsessing over a bowl of ramen involves quite a lot of emotional cork-screwing, the sort that most directors can only dream of pulling off, but Sabu works wonders here. All the stresses, worries, and pressures finally build up to a climactic action scene that is absolute dynamite, one of the best scenes of hand-to-hand combat in a year already jam-packed with fantastic action. From start to finish, Mr. Long is a trip, a remarkable experience that, in its best moments, is among the finest examples of genre-bending filmmaking to come out this year.