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Quint flips out for Japanese superhero flick K-20: LEGEND OF THE MASK (aka THE FIEND WITH 20 FACES) at SBIFF!!!

Ahoy, squirts! Quint here. I had a really interesting day here at the Santa Barbara Film Festival, catching a very British drama that I really liked (called POPPY SHAKESPEARE) then listening to a Danny Boyle post-SLUMDOG MILLIONAIRE Q&A followed by my own 10 minute interview with him before just barely catching the late screening of a movie called K-20: LEGEND OF THE MASK. Now, first off… fuck that title. The literal Japanese translation is The Fiend With Twenty Faces. Much better. This movie is a huge budget superhero movie. Imagine mixing liberal handfuls of Raimi’s SPIDER-MAN and Nolan’s BATMAN, then adding in a few pinches of DARKMAN and SKY CAPTAIN and you get an idea of what you’re in for.

The basic setting is late ‘40s Japan, but in an alternate world where War between the US was averted, which somehow has let Japan grow into a country with giant awesome zeppelins and weird helicopter/bi-plane hybrids. Unfortunately, society has also split itself in half. There are only two classes, rich and poor. By law, they are not allowed to marry outside of their own class and very rarely do they intermingle. There is a fly in the ointment, a masked vigilante named K-20, also known as the Fiend With Twenty Faces. The movie opens with a demonstration of a Tesla device that will pave the way to wireless energy. We see that it can be aimed anywhere in the world and using the right amount of electricity they can power single lightbulbs or entire towns. The assistant running the machine suddenly halts the demonstration. With a swoosh he pulls his face off and reveals himself as the masked K-20. He then uses the small Tesla device to focus energy within the room, causing little electrical explosions like he was Captain Marvel or something. K-20’s M.O. is that of a thief of priceless treasures. Paintings, jewels, money, etc. He constantly steals from the rich. He doesn’t give his spoils to the poor, but he seems to leave them alone. Hot on his heels is a star detective named Akechi (Toru Nakamura) who is celebrity within the upper class social circles. Akechi even has a public engagement with the wealthy heiress (Matsu Takako) to Japan’s most successful business. Then we meet our real star, Takeshi Kaneshiro (HERO), a crazy-awesome circus acrobat who delights the lower class nightly with his death defying acts of skill. He backflips his way through a barrage of arrows, but is also a natural theatrical talent, not merely just skilled physically. He does magic and plays to the audience, who loves him.

He’s approached after one of his shows by a mysterious strange with a large scar on his face. The stranger offers him a business card saying he writes for a tabloid and will offer Kaneshiro’s Endo a ton of cash if he’ll use his skills to somehow infiltrate the secure engagement ceremony between Nakamura and Takako and snap a few pictures for his publication. Of course it’s a set up and Endo is captured after an attack by K-20 on the ceremony, captured as being the masked maniac. He’s not in custody long. He’s sprung when somebody literally steals the bridge his convoy during transport is crossing. It was around this time that I was certain I knew where the movie was heading. K-20 must be fighting the good fight and is only involving Endo as a way to test him out to be his replacement or side-kick or something, right?

Well, I was totally wrong. K-20’s a bad guy. He really is trying to frame Endo as a means to allow him a real retirement. Endo’s rescue was enabled by a group of thieves lead by the grizzled old technician from Endo’s circus. What follows is Endo’s search for K-20 in order to clear his name and go back to the circus, doing what he loves. He has to train himself up and is aided by the circle of thieves as well as a little kid who worked at the circus with him. This kid was awesome. Imagine a Japanese version of the kid from LOVE, ACTUALLY. Cute, but kind of adult and a really fantastic actor, emoting so much complex emotion on his face. Endo trains in the ways of the thieves, which essentially involves learning how parkour around the retro-futuristic city. The idea is to blindly pick a point on a map and draw a straight line. He has to travel that line from beginning to end. He can’t move around obstacles in his path, either figuring a way over, under or through it. He is further aided by his friend from the circus, the old gruff bastard, who builds him a mechanical device which is essentially a combination between a webshooter, a whip and a grappling hook. And it is really damn awesome. What I loved about setting the film in this alternate universe period is that everything has a hand-made quality to it. The grappling device is clunky, mechanical and all the more badass for it. I honestly can’t believe this movie doesn’t have more buzz around it. Director Shimako Sato is certainly ripping off a ton of Western archetypes, but when you do it as well as he does it then it all mixes into a new type of flick. Kinda like what Tarantino does when he’s at his best. Kraken and I have been talking a lot about this film since we saw it and that discussion has turned to where the next batch of incredible visual filmmakers are going to come from. Sato’s claim to fame is as the cinematic director on video games like RESIDENT EVIL: CODE VERONICA and the ONIMUSHA series (which bases its lead character on Kaneshiro, star of this film). In the last two decades the visionaries have come out of music videos. The Edgar Wrights, David Finchers, Michel Gondrys, Spike Jonzes, etc. But we both concur that tomorrow’s visionaries are going to start coming out of video games. Look at the cut scenes for games like HALO, GOD OF WAR, NINJA GAIDEN, BIOSHOCK, ONIMUSHA, etc and there’s a visual richness, an attention to detail and camera movement that will translate perfectly to animated features or even live action, like the jump Sato makes with this film. Above all, this movie is just plain fun. It’s a little over 2 hours, but doesn’t drag at all. I also think this is the kind of film that can play for North American audiences. There’s enough visual pizzazz and action, but more importantly there’s a very western filmmaking style to it. Either the culture lines have blurred a bit over the last decade or Sato’s very talented at keeping the energy of Japanese cinema while keeping the structure something territory neutral. I have no idea where this is going from here, but it is my sincere hope that the film makes it to the US… more than likely in the form of DVD and Blu-Ray, but I’d hope for at least an art-house run. Check out the trailers below and get a glimpse of what has geeked me out:

Told you it was pretty cool. Looks even better on the big screen. Okay, enough writing. Time for me to sleep… be back soon with more SBIFF coverage! -Quint

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