J.B. Spins

Jazz, film, and improvised culture.

Tuesday, April 25, 2017

Tribeca ’17: Mr. Long

Movie gangsters have been taking a shine to neighborhood kids since Angels with Dirty Faces, but few have been domesticated as quickly as this Taiwanese hitman. His latest assignment takes him to Tokyo, but it will not turn out well. While laying low, he falls in with the son of a heroin-addicted former prostitute. It is unclear how serious his intentions are, but it will hardly matter much if his enemies find him in Sabu’s Mr. Long, which screens during the 2017 Tribeca Film Festival.

Mr. Long only wields a short stiletto, but it is sufficiently lethal in his hands. We get a sample of his handiwork in the opening scene, but unfortunately, his yakuza prey gets the drop on him in a nightclub. Barely escaping with his life, Mr. Long crashes in a squat in the distressed outer boroughs, where he quickly befriends Jun, a young boy forced to care for his drug-addled mother Lily. As we learn in flashbacks, she was once relatively happy working as a high-class yakuza prostitute, but when she fell for her driver Kenji, Jun’s father, it launched them both on a steep downward spiral.

Bereft of passport and money, Mr. Long must while away a week or so before he can catch a mobbed-up freighter back to Kaohsiung. In that time, he will start assuming a surrogate father role with respects to Jun and help Lily quit cold turkey. With the encouragement of the nosy, but well-intentioned neighbors (they can be a bit too cute), he starts selling Taiwanese beef noodles from a street cart. Of course, it is inevitable the villains from his past or Lily’s will interrupt this peaceful interlude.

Viewers should be warned, they could very well feel like they were stabbed in the heart with a stiletto after watching Mr. Long. Much like Sabu’s shockingly moving Miss Zombie, Mr. Long takes familiar genre elements and recombines them into an emotionally devastating tragedy. As a case in point, viewers will hope a key figure will appear at an opportune time to save the day, but Sabu is too honest for that.

As Mr. Long, quietly brooding Chang Chen burns up the screen. It is one of his darkest, most powerful turns since his teen debut in Edward Yang’s classic A Brighter Summer Day. However, Yao Yiti is arguably an even great revelation as the heartbreaking Lily. She just rips the audience’s guts out and stomps on them. Likewise, Bai Runyin’s performance as Jun is mature beyond his years.

To maximize their impact, Sabu is stingy with the action scenes, but when he uncorks one, the fight choreography is spectacularly down-and-dirty. In fact, the long period of household tranquility makes the third act showdown exponentially more powerful. Mr. Long will knock the wind out of you and stay with you. Very highly recommended for fans of yakuza movies and Sabu’s work, Mr. Long screens again tonight (4/25), tomorrow (4/26), and Saturday (4/29), as part of this year’s Tribeca Film Festival.

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