Rating: * * * * Director: Isao Yukisada Running time: 122 minutes Language: Japanese
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A few years ago, Asians were the hot thing in Japanese films, and then, suddenly, they were not. The peak was Shunji Iwai’s “Swallowtail,” a 1996 dystopian fantasy about a near-future Tokyo overrun by hungry young Asians who would commit any crime for a yen, but were more vital than the gray Japanese masses around them. With its stylistic borrowings from Ridley Scott’s “Blade Runner” and its peculiar mix of xenophilia and xenophobia (its Asians were great people to party with, but not to trust with the CD player), “Swallowtail” became a hit — and more Japanese money and talent went into movies with an Asians-in-Japan theme.

Yosuke Kubozuka in “Go”

Unfortunately, none of the later Japanese films with Asian heroes surpassed the success of “Swallowtail,” and the Asian boom died down, if not out. Instead, horror films became the next hot thing — and their principals all carried Japanese passports (save for the ones from the Great Beyond).

Isao Yukisada’s “Go” is something like “Swallowtail Redux”: a film by a promising new director arriving in the theaters with terrific buzz, whose zainichi (resident-in-Japan) Korean hero exudes the kind of spunk and soul most of his Japanese age-mates have either lost or never had to begin with. But in contrast to Iwai’s Asians, who were mostly cool figments of the director’s imagination, the hero of “Go” — a teenager with a lion-mane hairdo and a temper to match — is the credible creation of Kazuki Kaneshiro, author of the best-selling novel on which the film is based, and a zainichi Korean himself.

This hero, Sugihara, simmers with the rage that comes from being different in a society that celebrates its homogeneity and defines membership by blood. Though they may be the third generation of their families in Japan and they may look, talk and act like the Japanese around them, Sugihara and his Korean pals are still excluded, in ways subtle and not so subtle, from the mainstream. They are, the film notes in a funny, fast-paced, slickly edited opening sequence, more likely to end up in a police lineup than behind a company president’s desk.

This is not a new theme — Japanese films such as Nagisa Oshima’s “Koshikei (Death by Hanging)” (1968) and Kohei Oguri’s “Kayoko no Tame ni (For Kayoko)” (1984) tackled it, usually from the Koreans-as-victims angle. Probably the most accurate and certainly the funniest take, however, was that of zainichi Korean director Yoichi Sai in his 1993 film “Tsuki wa Dotchi ni Deteiru (All Under the Moon).” It told a blackly comic tale of a Korean cabby who is just trying to get by (if not along), shrugging off slurs from his Japanese passengers while fending off the demands of his bar-mama mother that he find a nice Korean girl and settle down. Instead of a social problem demanding redress, Sai treated his hero’s ethnicity as a condition admitting no easy solution. This approach won the film many awards, but did not earn the apolitical Sai many PC points.

Though he may not have Sai’s street cred, Yukisada is well-equipped for the task of making Koreans trendy again. In addition to working as an assistant director for Iwai on several films, including “Swallowtail,” he has made everything from music videos to features (“Himawari,” “Zeitaku na Hone”), while becoming fluent in the hip, new language of the modern eizo sakka (visual artist), with its large vocabulary of computer-aided editing tricks and its blithe rejection of traditional boundaries between high and low art. His new film is by turns, cheeky, cartoony and wittily stylish — but never dully self-important. It also has a vitality and drive that soothes its irritants, primarily the gratingly coy Ko Shibasaki as Sugihara’s love interest.

Most of all, it has a star-making performance by Yosuke Kubozuka who, as Sugihara, brings a combination of brash attitude and boyish charm, raw toughness and comic flair. After a decade of looking for its next Yusaku Matsuda, perhaps the Japanese film industry has finally found him.

The film traces Sugihara’s journey from his lock-step education at a Spartan minzoku gakko (Korean junior high school), dedicated to the greater glory of Dear Leader Kim Jong Il, to his entry into an ordinary Japanese high school and his fateful encounter with the lovely Sakurai (Shibasaki), she of the long, copper-colored hair and dramatically arched eyebrows. A bit of a rebel herself, coming across as 18-going-on-28, Sakurai is attracted by the fire in his eyes — and makes him believe, for the first time, that “Korean” is a category he can escape.

The film, as Sugihara keeps reminding us in a voice-over, is thus a “love story,” but it is also a coming-of-age story, with a frenzied energy and occasional sharp, satiric bite. Instead of running the usual oppressed-versus-oppressor changes, Yukisada and scriptwriter Kankuro Kudo turn them inside out. Trained from boyhood by his former pro-boxer father (Tsutomu Yamazaki), Sugihara knocks off a succession of would-be Japanese bullies as though they were so many arcade-game villains. His big eyes-lock moment with Sakurai is preceded by a free-for-all, inspired by Hong Kong chopsocky movies, in which he takes on an entire hostile basketball team (his own, as it happens).

He might appear to be a local version of that familiar figure from Hollywood films — the Super Minority Hero. (Yosuke Kubozuka, meet Will Smith.) Only he is not. Dad, a testy eccentric who changed his nationality from North to South Korean so he could take Mom (Shinobu Otake) on a trip to Hawaii, regularly knocks the stuffing out of him, while his delinquent pals at the minzoku gakko get him into idiotic trouble, such as running down the tracks ahead of an approaching subway train, with only the suicidally slimmest of head starts. Then Sakurai weaves her spell and reveals him as a gawky kid who can hardly talk to girls, let alone bed one.

Sugihara, however, is something more as well. Refusing the loser’s role in which society has cast him, he tries again and again to break out — and nearly has his heart broken in the process.

One heartbreaker is Shoichi (Takahito Hosodayama), Sugihara’s best friend, who has the most promise of all the Korean kids he knows — and the worst luck. Another is Sakurai, who, as played by Shibasaki, is flirty, flighty and supremely full of herself. But Kubozuka is the real thing — and makes “Go” worth going to.

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