NYAFF 2019: Hitman MR. LONG Grows a Heart

The New York Asian Film Festival runs from June 28 to July 14. For more information, click here.

There is an assassin. A very controlled, very stoic assassin. And one of his hits goes wrong. He escapes retribution and finds himself hiding out in a run-down slum where he befriends a young boy that brings out the humanity in him he has long kept buried. Slowly, he becomes a part of the community and begins building a new life. But it’s only a matter of time before his bloody past catches up with him…

Mr. Long is a movie that pulls off a trick that I don’t think I’ve ever seen before in a movie, despite many many people trying for it and failing: they successfully deglamourize violence against the “deserving” villains. The bad guys in this movie are particularly vile and sadistic. And yet when it comes time for their comeuppance, there’s nothing cathartic in what unfolds. It doesn’t feel like anything at all, honestly. It just feels… empty.

That the films ends in violence may seem like a spoiler, but Mr. Long is an essentially unspoilable movie… only the most inexperienced of moviegoers would not see pretty much everything that happens here coming from a mile away. Even those who were to merely read the description could probably fill in the blanks and get within spitting distance of being totally correct.

But as we all know, there are really only six or seven basic stories anyway, so it tends to matter less what a movie is about than how they go about telling the story. And so it is here.

Having seen many, many, many iterations of this story over the years, the thing that got me interested was the invocation of Charlie Chaplin in the film’s writeup. ‘Hitmen growing a heart’ stories are a dime a dozen by this point in the history of cinema. But if you were to throw in a pie fight or an elaborate routine involving dancing bread rolls… well, that would certainly find my interest piqued.

In retrospect, I may have been setting myself up for disappointment on that score…

Where Mr. Long takes its cues from Chaplin are in its embracing of silence; our titular Mr. Long barely utters more than a hundred words over the course of this two hours, and most of the other characters aren’t that much more chatty. And the film certainly leads more towards the maudlin in the second half when Long starts finding his humanity. But it also never fully relieves itself of the sense of futility laying over everything; if there is to be grace in the film, it will be hard won.

But there’s a sense in which chastising it for having a sentimental streak doing the film a disservice; one of the things that stands out is the film’s unwillingness to downplay the squalid nature of its environs. For example, there is nothing even remotely sentimental about the boy or his living situation. His mother is a junkie, and the film pulls zero punches in just how far she has fallen, and the rancid condition of their home is portrayed in occasionally sickening detail. And the violence, when it burbles up, is handled much the same.

Holding the center is Chang Chen (who cuts a rather more noble figure as the justice seeking cop of Savage, another festival entry this year). Despite the name checking of Chaplin, Chen’s Mr. Long is far more reminiscent of Buster Keaton in his deadpan non-reactions to everything he comes across. His stoicism becomes the films main source of humor, as he impassively accepts the overbearing impositions of his new neighbors, never blinking as they fall over themselves to incorporate him into their lives.

This all plays out at length, and can sometimes border on the downright sleepy, but Chen admirably manages to hold the center while doing very, very little. To the extent the film works, the success rests on his oft-impassive shoulders.

Writer-director Sabu is a mainstay of the festival; he actually has another entry this year, the typically offbeat sounding Jam. In years past I’ve covered his earlier entries Chasuke’s Journey and Happiness. Because it isn’t quite able to find a new take on a type of story that has been done to death, Mr. Long is ultimately the least successful of his films that I’ve seen so far. But it is not without merit… in my experience, no Sabu picture is. For those who haven’t burned out totally on hitman dramas, this is one that at least has a skilled hand behind the camera and a potent presence in front of it.

Really cool musical score, too; that’s got to count for something…

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