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DVD Review: The Yakuza Papers/Infernal Affairs

By Glenn Abel

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photo They have sniveling down to a fine art in Kinji Fukasaku's "The Yakuza Papers." Sniveling, weeping, groveling and myriad other abasements of the spirit. There's little nobility found in the clashes between Fukasaku's low-rent Japanese gangsters, only the "Battles Without Honor and Humanity" promised in the subtitle.

"The Yakuza Papers" consists of five sequential films made in the 1970s and only now making their U.S. debut, in a six-DVD set from Home Vision (retail $99.95; separately $19.95). Comparisons to the first two "Godfathers" seem inevitable, but "Yakuza" is a singular film experience -- deeply rewarding for those with the stomach for its kinetic violence; overwhelming in scope and complexity.

Home Vision thoughtfully provides a printed chart that helps viewers track the crime families that do battle over the quarter-century covered in the series. They'll need it. "Yakuza" rarely pauses to allow for reflection -- this is a dizzying eight-hour hell ride through a time and place as foreign as they come.

Fukasaku, perhaps best known in the West for his bloody schoolboy fantasy "Battle Royale," entered young adulthood in the rubble of Japan, after the United States unleashed its A-bombs. Fukasaku was a member of the "black-market generation" for whom authority -- the emperor or U.S. occupiers -- meant nothing.

The first image of "Yakuza" is the atomic blast over Hiroshima. The opening scene shows American soldiers raping a Japanese schoolgirl. In Japan of the late 1940s, "Some people went crazy," says American filmmaker William Friedkin. "Fukasaku was one of those who was able to turn this chaos and degeneration into art."

Friedkin, whose talking-head interview kicks off the extras disc, calls Fukasaku "a master," comparing "The Yakuza Papers" to James Joyce's "Ulysses." No doubt a contemporary influence on the frantic hand-held camerawork was Friedkin's own "The French Connection," which the U.S. director says "very easy could have been done by Fukasaku."

Fukasaku looked past the stars of romanticized old-school yakuza films to find his lead, Bunta Sugawara, with whom he had just worked on "Street Mobster" (also on Home Vision). No one in "Yakuza" gets off easy, but Sugawara's existential Hirono character comes closest to a traditional hero as he makes his way from the streets to the top of the underworld. More typical is weepy crime boss Yamamori (Nobuo Kaneko), a cross between Don Corleone and Floyd the barber.

"Fukasaku wasn't worried about happy endings. He didn't have to redeem the good guys," Friedkin says. Fukasaku's son Kenta, also a director, notes that the stars of "Yakuza" serve as narrative catalysts, while "the real focus" is on the gangs' foot soldiers, who die in droves. Best not to become too attached.

Home Vision, which has busied itself importing gritty yakuza films, gives Fukasaku's epic first-class treatment, starting with a metal container and an artful fold-out for the discs. Video looks tremendous, coming from films of their era and budget, with almost no speckling or other overt wear. Aspect ratio is 2.35:1, enhanced for 16x9 TVs. There are a few scenes with flashes of polarization and occasional image stretching near the sides of the letterboxed frames. The mono audio is solid.

One don't-miss extra is the interview with tough-talking translator Linda Hoaglund, who grew up in Japan as the daughter of missionaries. The films of "Fukasaku-san" were all about rage, she says. "He's ripping the lid off Japanese society: 'Take a look -- it's wild here.' "

U.S. News & World Report journalist David Kaplan, who wrote a book on the yakuza, gives a rat-a-tat-tat history of the crime families in postwar Japan, linking U.S. military intelligence to their rise. "Yakuza" was based on the writings of a real-life fallen gangster and fleshed out by talented screenwriter Kazo Kasahara, who found the humor and humanity in many of the characters.

Fukasaku biographer Sadao Yamane talks about the director's influence on Toei, once a factory for sappy, Robin Hood-style yakuza films. For an action movie revolutionary, Fukasaku "was a studio filmmaker through and through," Yamane says. A too-brief segment shows the director defending the violence in his films while walking through a scrap yard. Fukasaku died in 2003, with his star Sugawara holding his hand.

Hong Kong's Triad movies long ago muscled their way to the top of the Asian gangster genre. One of the best seen here since the glory days of John Woo is "Infernal Affairs," a sleek and supersonic vehicle for Andy Lau ("House of Flying Daggers") and Tony Leung Chiu Wai ("Hero").

Like "Yakuza Papers," "Affairs" resists viewers' attempts to make sense of it all in a single viewing. The basic plot is simple, though: The cops plant a young mole in a gang, and the gang plants a young mole on the police force. (Martin Scorsese bought rights to the film and its follow-ups; his "The Departed" is due in 2006.)

The rapid-fire editing and prowling cameras of "Infernal Affairs" keep viewers on edge throughout. Communications technology has a co-starring role: cell phones are like oxygen; computers run the characters' lives. All is not slick, however. As with Woo's Hong Kong crime films, there are soap-opera moments and some sappy music -- they just come with the territory.

Miramax rolls out "Infernal Affairs" on a single disc with a handful of extras made for Asian audiences (retail $29.99). The film seems drenched in primary colors, especially in night scenes. Image quality ranges from good to great, despite too much speckling. The 2.35:1 widescreen comes enhanced for 16x9 TVs. The film is in Cantonese with strong yellow subtitles; the dubbed English track is better than most. The 5.1 audio stays mostly front and center, with sometimes-startling force and clarity. An alternate ending completes the DVD experience but dumbs down the film if you buy into it.

Glenn Abel is Executive Editor, Electronic, at The Hollywood Reporter

Reprinted, with permission, from The Hollywood Reporter

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