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Saturday, December 27, 2008

Shimaka Sato's K-20: Legend of the Mask K-20 怪人二十面相・伝 starring Takeshi Kaneshiro and Takako Matsu

I didn't even know that this film is already playing in the cinemas until I saw the trailer on TV yesterday (or rather, early this morning, 4am), and I immediately decided to see it because, aside from the film festivals I attended, I haven't been to the cinemas in Tokyo for a long time.

K-20: LEGEND OF THE MASK (also known as K-20: THE FIEND WITH TWENTY FACES) is, in my opinion, Japan's attempt at the superhero genre, or to be more precise, the HOLLYWOOD superhero genre, because when I was seeing this film, I can't help but noticed many similarities between the film and the many superhero films that came out in Hollywood this year, especially with its admirably high production values.

And that's my problem with it. By trying to play Hollywood's game and make films following mostly the blueprint of Hollywood blockbuster popcorn flicks, like their recent attempts at disaster flicks, I feel that K-20 comes off as nothing more than an imitation (albeit one with, again, good production values). As I was watching K-20, I couldn't help but felt that it invited comparisons to the likes of DARK KNIGHT and IRON MAN, which isn't doing itself any favours, and because of this, K-20 suffers in comparison.

Female director Shimako Sato, a London International Film School graduate, did a competent job with the film, especially one with such a big budget. (read her interview on Japan Times) The film tries to encompass everything, charismatic performance from Takeshi Kaneshiro, a cute turn from Takako Matsu, more cool badassness from Toru Nakamura, it has comedy, romance and some genuinely nice action scenes which opt mostly for semi-realistic parkour stunts instead of distractingly bad CGI. Let me copy and paste the synopsis I got from Nippon Cinema as it's the most accurate one I can find.

A mysterious criminal with the power to change his appearance tricks the police into thinking a circus acrobat named Heikichi Endo (Takeshi Kaneshiro) is the real criminal. Endo must then break free from his cell and take on the man called "K-20" to clear his name and save a young heiress named Yoko Hashiba (Takako Matsu) from becoming the next victim.

(Takako Matsu does NOT play a female detective as mentioned in some websites)

Story is set in 1949, in the fictional capital city of Teito, which has a tower that looks like Tokyo Tower (before researching online, I had assumed that the film is set in a stylized version of 1949 Tokyo) where aristocrats monopolize most of the wealth, and the K-20 dude is like a mix or Robin Hood and Zorro (costume looks like a homage). I wanted to see more of the city, actually. Or to know more of the characters, stronger characterization, or more character growth. Yet character and story just feel underdeveloped, and while there are some plot twists, they do feel somewhat contrived. The film isn't entirely influenced by superhero films, as it is also a crime/ heist film with some plot twists, but most of the twists I saw from miles away despite understanding only 10-20% of the dialogue, yup, no subtitles again)

When the real identity of K-20 is revealed, and the devastating moment is followed by long chunks of expository dialogue, I wondered whether they were done deliberately to pay homage to older films and anime. But then, despite some humourous scenes, film's tone is mostly serious, so I doubt it.

It is what it is, nothing more. The best praise I can give it, aside from the well-executed action scenes (and the really good sound design) is that while the first third is somewhat slow, I found myself engaged enough once the training montage kicked in (Kaneshiro learns parkour skills!) And by the time I left the cinema, I was more than a little surprised to find out that the film actually ran two and a half hours. Which is good. As the film aspires only to entertain audiences, and not to alter lives, I'll say that, for the most part, it succeeds.

The film's ending leaves possibility for a sequel. I don't really look forward to it, but since I'm easily impressed by a cool trailer (I'm already excited about next year's WOLVERINE film because its trailer was badass), so don't mark my words yet.

Here are the trailers from Nippon Cinema.