Katsuhito Ishii has enjoyed a very positive reputation as director of interesting and whimsical films like The Taste of Tea and Funky Forest. His latest Smuggler is a pulpy crime drama that at first glance promises to fuse Ishii's comedic magic into a solid yakuza storyline. This seems to be working with fine effect until Ishii takes a horrendous wrong turn three-quarters into the film and subjects the audience to a showing of torture pornography so brutal as to completely ruin the film and leave at least this reviewer questioning cinema's merits when it contributes garbage like this.
Smuggler is the story of a loser drop out named Kinuta (Satoshi Tsumabuki) who is conned into a big debt by only his lazy stupidity and is forced to take a job helping dispose of mob killed corpses. Kinuta's story limps along as he forms a relationship with his boss and tries to learn to be less of a pussy. The boy's failed dream of becoming an actor plays a big part of his story as he assumes little roles here and there to keep the crew out of trouble.
The more interesting story taking place throughout is that of assassin partners Vertebrae (Masanobu Ando) and Viscera (Ryushin Tei) who are usually involved in the dirty work that Kinuta is cleaning up. These two have a great onscreen chemistry that reminds quickly of Jules Winnfield and Vincent Vega in Pulp Fiction. Like that pair, Vertebrae & Viscera's conversations dip liberally into existentialism and provide the film's best dialog. They are also complete bad asses and when they aren't waxing poetic, they're mopping the floor with whatever dumb criminals think they can take a shot at the pair. Without a doubt these fight sequences are when Smuggler is at its best.
Note: The rest of this review contains analysis that some might consider to include spoilers.
Then it all goes horribly wrong. After a series of events leads to the smugglers transporting a captured Vertebrae, the killer escapes and Kinuta is told by his mentor to play the greatest role of his acting career and impersonate Vertebrae. What happens to Kinuta as he is "playing the role" is some of the most graphic and disgusting torture I've seen in a Japanese movie. Bones are broken, cheeks are sliced open, and red hot nails are shoved in between the poor kid's toes. It is awful and a complete stylistic break from the comic violence of the rest of the film.
Often when this sort torture is depicted in cinema it is with the aim to say something about the torturer. This is not the case in Smuggler. Here the torturer is a minor character that we immediately accept as a psychopath and move on. Ostensibly this scene is to speak to something in our protagonist Kinuta. If he is to follow through with his arc and find his confidence, then he needs to fully inhabit his role of Vertebrae to the point where he literally obtains his physical scars. I can understand the idea here, but the problem is that we as an audience have too much empathy for our protagonist and to experience that sort of extreme torture is too personally jarring when it can be explained away as easily as, "just don't let him torture you."
This sort of graphic pain inflicted on an empathetic audience just for the sake of extreme filmmaking is pitiful (see: Human Centipede 2 Review). I expected more from an innovative voice like Ishii. Unless this sort of torture porn is what you are looking for, stay far away.