Sabu’s “Mr. Long” – 2017 Tribeca Film Festival Review

The year 2017 continued the unfortunate dearth of feature-length works by Asian directors at the annual Tribeca Film Festival.  In fact, just one made it to the program.  That lone title, however, proved to be a formidable, surprising choice: the latest by Sabu starring Taiwanese actor Chang Chen (“Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon”) in one of the most accessible and sentimental films by the Japanese director to date.

Violence, absurdity, bad timing and eccentric characters all comprise Sabu’s modus operandi, with story lines winding in as improbable a fashion as the “Serpentine!” sequence in “The In-Laws.”  These flourishes are omnipresent in “Mr. Long,” which opens in the southern Taiwan city of Kaohsiung. Evening shots, from upscale fashion storefronts to a food market and close-ups of noodles, segue into a scene where several gangsters are sitting in a dingy room, discussing the burial of a body.  Suddenly Chen – in the title role of hitman Long – enters the space, methodically dispatches the entire group, walks back to his hotel, washes the blood off of his hands…and proceeds to make dumplings.

Long’s next assignment takes him to Japan, where a job goes awry, resulting in his kidnapping and the burning of his passport.  As gangsters surround a bound and bagged Long, a knife-wielding man intrudes, literally stabbing the boss of the group in the back and inadvertently providing a clumsy escape for the kidnappee.  Broke, hungry and injured, Long winds up in a seemingly abandoned, litter-strewn town resembling the post-earthquake ruins of Fukushima.  He would be left for dead without the occasional interventions of a dour boy named Jun (Bai Run-yin), who wordlessly drops handouts by Long’s side day after day.  Through an amusing series of events where the awkwardness of using different languages in the same conversation actually helps to propel the plot, the town’s residents gradually take Long under their wings.  Somehow, he finds himself as the chef of a roving beef noodle stall (now all the mouthwatering food references make sense), and for some reason, he doesn’t want to go back home despite the fact that his captors are closing in on him.

Revealing more beyond this point would give away the threads that gradually connect the dots between moments that initially appear to occur by happenstance.  Chen’s performance amplifies these; he plays the textbook perfect definition of “silent brooding male lead” until bursts of death, levity and exasperation cause subtle reactions, chipping away at his otherwise stoic demeanor.  When Long realizes that human connections, no matter how fleeting, triumph over paying the bills, his exterior finally breaks – as did most viewers’ attending the Tribeca public screening on Apr. 25.  That emotional epiphany was a remarkable moment: not only had a longtime cult director matured into the mainstream, but he did so while retaining the signature storytelling traits of his past repertoire.

“Mr. Long” made its North American premiere at the 2017 Tribeca Film Festival.