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Returner (2002)
Director: Takashi Yamazaki

review by Amy Harlib

A new Japanese science fiction action film with limited distribution (it's in Japanese and Mandarin with English subtitles) though heavily derivative of Hollywood genre pictures, still deserves to be seen and enjoyed by aficionados. Director Takashi Yamazaki's second feature (after the similarly themed Juvenile, 2000), Returner (aka: Ritaanaa) does bring a certain Asian flair and zest to the visually dazzling proceedings.
   Returner, replete with a m´┐Żlange of homages to and influences from a variety of successful and/or beloved western film sources such as The Terminator, The Matrix, E.T. The Extra-Terrestrial Independence Day and Close Encounters Of The Third Kind - also comes full of references to Eastern anime, yakuza gangster sagas and contemporary Hong Kong martial arts thrillers. The result delivers fast-paced, exciting entertainment with stylish, cinematic panache but not much substance.
   The film concerns a present day, youthful but tough hitman for hire in Tokyo teaming up with a wise-beyond-her-years, plucky teenage girl from the future who came to prevent an immanent invasion by aliens, the Daggra (Tibetan word for 'enemy'). The crucial year yet to come from whence the heroine travelled, 2084, represents the time of maximum crisis when the last motley remnants of human warriors holed up in a Tibetan fortress face doom in their final battles with the extraterrestrials. An experimental time portal offers humanity's only hope, especially when the experienced soldier who volunteers to venture through, gets shot down by the enemy in a very gruesome, ultra-violent combat scene showing multiple deaths.
   Instead, newly recruited, feisty, gamine Milly (Anne Suzuki) enters the temporal gateway and finds herself materialising in the year 2002 when the unearthly beings were first discovered among us. She appears on the deck of a docked tanker where she lands in the midst of a gunfight between the small-time gangster Miyamoto (Takeshi Kareshino) and hardened psycho, crime lord Mizoguchi (Goro Kishitani). The latter had just received a highly illegal shipload of abducted children who for him serve only as sources of organs to be harvested and auctioned off. Mizoguchi gets targeted by Miyamoto for revenge for causing the protagonist's only childhood friend to suffer the just-mentioned youngsters same grim fate and he has been pursuing this evildoer ever since.
   When Miyamoto mistakenly shoots Milly, the young man, upset by having hurt an innocent bystander, wavers. This gives Mizoguchi time to get away. Miyamoto gives the injured Milly shelter in his flat where, fortunately, the slightly wounded girl swiftly recovers and by turns connives and browbeats her host into aiding her in her quest to find the Daggra and to stave off the forthcoming devastation.
   Meanwhile, we discover that Mizoguchi's path perilously parallels that of the protagonists' for he is in cahoots with corrupt officials working at the National Institute of Space Science. Here the ultra-clandestine discovery of a stranded alien space vehicle and its shrivelled, frail occupant gets thoroughly examined. For Mizoguchi, this unprecedented find only represents opportunities for financial gain from possible weaponry contained within the otherworldly craft and from any knowledge that can be extracted with the right inducements from the suffering little being in their custody.
   The plotlines soon converge into a climactic showdown pitting the persevering Milly and the at-first reluctant but eventually agreeable Miyamoto against the ruthless Mizoguchi and his fierce minions, with the final outcome in question. Though this sounds predictable, director and co-scripter Yamazaki does throw in some interesting twists and surprises at the very end. What also saves the film from being a slavish imitation of Hollywood science fiction fare is the delightful chemistry between the starring pair who develop a quirky, believable friendship that thankfully never descends into the forced romance that would probably occur in an American made production. Kishitani, makes a superb villain-you-love-to-hate, the ultimate badass, cold-blooded thug, ultra-cool with his spiky, blond-streaked hair and fancy clothes - relishing every moment of his wickedness. In a memorable supporting role, Kirin Kiki gave a fine performance and deserved more screen time as Miyamoto's shrewd, spry elderly mentor using a traditional Chinese medicine shop to front low-level illegal activity.
   In Returner, the charismatic, appealing protagonists and the deliciously nasty chief bad guy play out their roles against some fascinating industrial, hi-tech backgrounds and cosmopolitan Tokyo cityscapes while dressed in snazzy Matrix style duds and while performing clever, exciting, acrobatic 'bullet-time' stunts rationalised by a hi-tech, bracelet-like device Milly brought with her to the past. Although the alien itself looked far too much like an E.T. rip-off, this disappointment is balanced out by the excellent designs for the extraterrestrial battle armour and the ingenious Transformer-esque morphing, near the very end of the story, of a spaceship disguised as a 747 airplane, into its true appearance.
   A dynamic, eclectic score provided effective, pleasing musical accompaniment to everything in Returner. This film, despite some extreme and bloody violence, also offers plusses in its idiosyncratic mix of sci-fi influences; great special effects and production design; some very fine character interaction between the leading players; and a narrative that swiftly flows along. Yamazaki's Returner heralds a great potential in its director if he can express his ideas next time with more unfettered creativity. While Returner offers fun entertainment, it lacks the depth and innovation to reward repeated viewings. However, any genre buff ought to eagerly return to give Yamazaki's next project a chance.
Returner

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