‘Mr. Long’: Chang Chen’s charisma carries a stylish film

by Mark Schilling

Contributing Writer

The cool, tight-lipped killer-for-cash that Clint Eastwood played in the Sergio Leone Westerns of the 1960s has become an icon and, in his many imitators, something of a cliche.

In “Mr. Long,” a thriller directed by the single-named Sabu that premiered in competition at last year’s Berlin film festival, title star Chang Chen reminds us why this character became so popular in the first place.

Chang, who starred in the 1991 Edward Yang classic “A Brighter Summer Day” and has since worked with Wong Kar-wai, Hou Hsiao-hsien and Ang Lee, does not try to out-Clint Clint. Instead he humanizes Mr. Long, a Taiwanese hit man who finds himself on the run in Japan. He does this more with attitudes and gestures than words — his Long is not a talker, to put it mildly. Nonetheless, he has a charisma that carries the film through its nothing-much-happening longueurs.

Mr. Long
Run Time 129 mins

It begins with a burst of action in Taiwan. A gang of robbers is celebrating after a successful holdup when a silent, black-clad stranger — Long — appears out of nowhere and wipes them out using nothing more than a small blade and lightning-quick martial arts moves.

Pleased with Long’s delivery of the holdup loot, his bosses give him another job, this time in Japan. Long spies his quarry, a blonde-haired gangster, in a crowded strip club, but the hit goes wrong and Long finds himself a captive of the gangster and his associates in the middle of a wasteland in the dead of night. All seems lost, when a crazed man appears out of nowhere to distract the hoods and Long makes a miraculous escape, despite a bullet in his side.

Filmed with a headlong pace if next-to-zero realism these action sequences recall the early Sabu of such adrenaline-fueled films as “D.A.N.G.A.N. Runner” (1996) and “Postman Blues” (1997). But when Long enters an urban wasteland and finds refuge in an abandoned house, the film enters a quiet, frankly sentimental phase.

Weakened by his wound, Long receives help from Jun (Runyin Bai), a little boy who understands his language and brings him food and medicine. Long also makes the acquaintance of Jun’s mom, Lily (Yao Yi-ti), a druggie prostitute who was once the lover of Kenji (Sho Aoyagi), a driver for the aforementioned boss. But after this relationship ended violently, she fell into addiction and despair.

Long not only rehabs Lily, over her loud protests, but wins friends in the neighborhood with his culinary skills. His local supporters, all warm-hearted types, set him up with a Taiwanese food stall that soon draws lines. Long begins to dream of returning home, while the promise of a new life with Lily and Jun also beckons.

Before that Long and Lily’s old nemeses turn up, as they must, but Sabu, who also wrote the script, delivers plot twists that are not all predictable.

“Mr. Long” is stylized to a fault, with cinematographer Koichi Furuya filming Tokyo as a glittery, glamorous nightscape. Even Long’s rundown neighborhood takes on the look of a minimalist art installation.

However, some of the film’s most memorable images are of Long whipping up Taiwanese-style home cooking with simple ingredients, casual skill and no arty pretensions whatsoever. Enjoy.