Somehow, Ukon Gondo managed to fall in with a small group of Japanese leftist nationalists. They combine the fervor of Imperialist WWII denial with leftwing contempt for commerce and capitalism. Wisely, society shuns them, especially women. However, Gondo will find camaraderie with the unlikeliest brothers in Nobuhiro Yamashita’s Hard-Core, which screens during the 2019 New York Asian Film Festival.
Gondo has anger management issues that often require his contemptuous junior executive brother Sakon to bail him out of scrapes. His only work is a weekly gig digging for the presumably mythical lost gold of an ancient shogun in an abandoned mine, under the supervision of Kaneshiro, the doddering nutter “Chairman” of his small but extreme political party. Gondo’s closest companion is the hulking but slow-witted Ushiyama, whom he takes a protective interest in.
Then one day they stumble across an Iron Giant-like robot that they dub “Robo-o.” He looks retro on the outside, but he has a blazing fast processor on the inside. They essentially treat him like a friend and fellow party-member, until Sakon activates his communication interfaces. He also has the notion to exploit Robo-o’s gold detection capabilities. There might actually be gold in that darn hill, but Gondo is more interested in Taeko Mizunuma, the nympho-divorcee daughter of Kaneshiro’s lieutenant and dig foreman.
Hard-Core is an awkward shaggy dog of a film, but it is compellingly earnest and refreshingly averse to cliché and sentimentality. Like Gondo, Yamashita clearly scorns cutesiness, but he connects with his characters on a very humanistic level. The science fiction elements are definitely on the light side, but they are still there, albeit rendered with defiantly low-fi grubbiness. Regardless, the film is probably best classified as an urban fable.
Takayuki Yamada does not say much, but he expresses quite a bit through glares and the black smoke that nearly wafts out of his ears. Takeru Satoh hits the right ambiguous notes as the hard-to-pin-down, but undeniably disdainful Sakon, while Yoshiyoshi Arakwa projects Ushiyama’s sensitive soul, without resorting to distasteful shtick or caricatures.
Based on Carib Marley well-regarded manga series, Hard-Core is sort of like Joel Shumacher’s Falling Down, crossed with The Iron Giant. There is plenty of commentary regarding the economic and social squeeze faced by working-class men without advanced degrees. Yet, what really makes the film work is the friendships that develop between the three outcasts. Recommended surprisingly highly, Hard-Core screens this Saturday (6/29), as part of NYAFF ’19.