“Willfully perverse” was the adjective that came to mind again and again throughout Unlucky Monkey. It’s about a would-be bank robber, Yamazaki, dragged through one unbelievable stroke of luck — good, bad, and horrible — after another. By the end of the film he’s an empty husk, limping into oncoming traffic for speedy deliverance from any further indignity. I suspect most of the people watching would want to hurl themselves in after him.
Me, I was divided. On the one hand, Monkey was put together with consummate skill: it looks great, the acting is solid, and the director — Sabu, of Dangan Runner and Postman Blues, et al. — has a great sense of the absurd. On the other hand, there’s literally nothing else but absurdity at work here. It’s a lot like Scorsese’s underrated After Hours in both tone and logic (or lack of same), but that film had a curious kind of heart and soul to it, and this one just seems to find various ways to repeat the same few basic ideas until most everyone is dead.
A botched bank robbery, a trio of bumbling gangsters, a bag of money:
all normally thriller ingredients, but here given a tragic/existential twist.
No question that the first act or so is brilliant. Yamazaki (Shinichi Tsutsumi) and another cohort discover to their astonishment that the bank they were going to stick up has already been robbed by someone else. Through an insane chain of coincidences, Yamazaki ends up running for his life with the loot, then rounds a corner and accidentally stabs a woman in the stomach. Blood-spattered and panicky, he buries the money in a tract of land near Tokyo’s harbor and tries to either conquer his guilt or expunge it. Neither works.
All this is paralleled with another plotline about three bumbling gangsters who mistakenly kill a rival gang boss, bury him, and then try vainly to deal with the fallout. The two plotlines eventually intersect in a way that isn’t so much fated or even farcical as just plain forced, and by the time we get to the final shots (which are eerie and plaintive, I admit) everything’s canceled itself out. I suspect that was the point, but that’s exactly the problem: by the time we realize what the full scope of the movie’s idea is, we also realize the director thinks it’s a lot more interesting than we do.
Here and there, the movie has moments. There’s a hilarious bit where Yamazaki evades the police (he thinks) by hiding out in a community meeting where he becomes an unexpected rabble-rouser. I half-expected those people to be his new lease on life, but nothing comes of it. A bit where the gangsters get trapped in a men’s room while an assassin tries to kill them from outside — while he himself is dying from a bullet in his own gut — is riotous. And while the climax does follow from the movie’s own absurd logic and is marvelously put together to boot, I suspect it’s going to seem more satisfying to film students than anyone else. Much like everything that came before.