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OUDAI KOJIMA: JOINT (2020) - 2021 New York Asian Film Festival (Aug. 6-22)

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RECRUITING IN JOINT

TRAILER [without subtitles]

Reaching for the straight life through a crime gone tech

In his first feature, reportedly made for only $50,000, the very young director Oudai Kojima (he was born in 1994 and grew up in New York City till age 13) has subtly revolutionized Japanese yakuza movies. This is a picture unlikely to be shown in American theaters, though it might turn up in more adventurous Parisian ones. Kojima's new approach is twofold, style and content, though when that works you can't easily separate the two. There's a distinctive vérité shaky cam look in the cinematography of Shintaro Teramoto, with the camera up close on faces at different angles; there are regular on-screen explanations of terms that act as minor chapter headings and the action is informed by a researched documentary realism. There are quiet voiceovers by the main character and a few other explanatory voiceovers. The effect is fresh and nimble and personal. It starts out noirish, and when there is a shift to gang war, the intimate, stylish feel is still maintained, with a keen sense of the varied, sometimes very downbeat, digs and meeting places battling clan members pass through.

The point of view is of Takeshi Ishigami (Ikken Yamamoto), whose extralegal activities got him two years in prison. We don't see that. We only glimpse the end of the two more years next spent at a construction job saving up capital to restart his life. As we pick up with him, he gets help from his best friend Yasu in moving back to Tokyo. Takeshi was never a hard core gangster type but a smooth operator, a scam artist, an extortionist (one gathers), who's good with money. (This of ourse however fits with the new focus of Japanese organized crime, which is also to fous on legitimate business.)

This is a world of new, cyber-supported crime. The cops have more access to information but so do the criminals. Thumb drives, data mining, and digital startups play key roles. Takeshi starts out buying a fake business. He returns to his previous "list business" - harvesting information that he resells for fraud schemes.

We don't know how Takeshi all his new money but he's soon making a lot of it and enlisting the aid of an old pal who's rich to add to investments that include buildings and, to launder cash, a startup that becomes so successful the big yakuza clan buys it.

The yakuza is different, though it will revert to type before long. It has banished its most violent members, but they start their own clan, which starts on horning in on the businesses the "polite" clan controls. Takeshi wants to be "clean," to get out of crime. But before he can do that, to raise funds, he wants to do just a bit of thoroughly illegal scamming and enlists his Korean friend Jung-hi(Kim Jin-cheol)and starts a business selling data for phone fraud to his Yakuza friend Yuki.

The scammers, to avoid police detection, phone from cars. All very new and soft core. There's a new generation of lean, rangy young yakuza or would be yakuza crooks who don't smoke, don't wear suits, and have floppy hair. They look rather like punks sometimes and at others like Japanese versions of Silicon Valley geniuses. In fact, after amassing funds, some of which we have no idea how he gets, and which include buying a whole building, Takeshi buys into a startup data app company and when he accompanies the scrawny geeks at the presentation for an powerful and rich firm, he becomes the more powerful and influential presenter.

Ikken Yamamoto, who plays Takeshi, is a tallish, handsome dude. He doesn't look extremely Japanese, though there is at least one other gangster whose face is totally Caucasian, and he's not like that; but he's neutrally movie-star handsome. After Takeshi goes into successful operation, he starts looking posh, and one gangster wants to mimic his long elegant leather coat. Unfortunately, he has a criminal record, which includes jail time. This is one bar to his leaving crime behind or being accepted as trustworthy in business. It sticks to him. The other is that the ruling clan wants him. They have no intention of his being so successful and not getting a cut, and a mysterious organization headed by "J" gets involved in his business plan. Once the needle goes in it never comes out. Plus ça change. . . All the film's themes are neatly embodied in its central character.

Unfortunately like nearly any yakuza movie - except that other Takeshi's, Takeshi Kitano's - the simple English-titled Joint eventually becomes a bit overcomplicated when it gets involved in gang war. There is torture, there is assassination, and there is even a clan elder executing a disloyal reprobate up close with a long knife. There is also more fruit of the director's research: the social commentary of how immigrants are forced to engage in crime in Japan because legitimate breadwinning methods are often barred to them. One may be a bit confused by all the Korean that is spoken, with Japanese subtitles, seemingly as a secret language. It seems that at the end the clan has decided to "save" Takeshi by exiling him, providing him with a "clean" passport and packing him off to Korea - a cool new way of practicing the yakuza movie ritual of setting up for a sequel. Despite its more conventional latter half, Joint is an atmospheric, stylish, and original variation on the yakuza film by an interesting new director with an authoritative new star.

INTERVIEW with Oudai Kojima

Joint ジョイント (Jointo),118 mins., opened limited Nov. 15, 2020 in Tokyo. It was also shown and reviewed at the Osaka Asian Film Festival, Mar. 7, 2021. It was screened for this review as part of the 2021 NY Asian Film Festival (Aug. 6-22).

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