Review: RETURNER (2002)

Coolest DVD Cover in the author's opinion

It is hard for me to review this film without being a little subjective for nostalgia's sake. I caught it on television for the first time since I lived in Memphis (which was 6 years ago). The reason why it is hard for me to review a film such as this is because when it came to be watching Japanese films, some of the first ones I saw I didn’t see again till recently. RETURNER is one of those films. Such juxtaposition between my views on these films then and now proves interesting.

I saw RETURNER when I first started to notice that some channels on television actually did show some Japanese films that were not kaiju related. This included ONMYOJI, ONMYOJI 2, VERSUS, KUNOICHI: LADY NINJA (which was especially interesting seeing how (even though I didn’t know it at the time) it was the first film I got to see with the character Yagyu Jubei in it, and was also very pornographic), JU-ON, and the last of the Shintaro Katsu Zatoichi films.

Of course, in the move, things changed. A lot of those films stopped coming on. It was not that bad, since the Sundance Channel and IFC - at the time - indulged me with their offering (which helped introduce me to a lot more). But it wasn’t till this past year that I finally got to watch - for the first time in ages - films like ONMYOJI and RETURNER.

RETURNER was a weird film for me. Luckily, I saw it before I saw any of the Matrix films. Additionally, I saw it around the same time I got exposed to the Terminator franchise. Already, I am just naturally dispositional to like the film more than the more experienced, older audiences. Along with that, I saw it at the same time I saw Ryuhei Kitamura’s VERSUS. That duo is a very interesting thing to get exposed to at the same time - young me would kind of want to start thinking all Japanese action films had their main protagonist be leather trench coat-clad with their enemies being gangsters from one side of the Sea of Japan or the other, involved with something from the science fiction or horror genre.

For those who do not know, RETURNER concerns a young girl going back in time to stop a group of Chinese gangsters (with a Japanese member) from screwing around with a space craft holding an extra terrestrial monikered “daggra”.

With all that I have told you now, you will now see why there is influence from the TERMINATOR. Even a bit from INDEPENDENCE DAY if you dare to read too much into it. THE MATRIX comparisons come from the visual style instead of the substance. In fact, the slow motion in Returner is not like the Matrix's at all. Where as the Matrix did bullet time to just make a pretty picture, the slow motion in Returner is a side effect of the use of a time-slowing decide our protagonists have at their disposal. It actually serves the story.

In a more innocent time (when I first saw this film), I just thought this was a fun action film with some cool direction. But, since it is six years latter, I know a lot more about film. I know a lot more about how filmmakers can express ideals almost subconsciously into their work. And I also know this film was made by the last guy to legitimately show Godzilla on the big screen in Japan (Even if for a few seconds) - Takashi Yamazaki. I guess I cannot say I expected the greatest movie ever, even with Yamazaki’s name on it (seeing how much acclaim he has gathered since his ALWAYS films). It did feel a bit more welcome seeing that it is from him though. But then, we get to something quite interesting about the film…

The anti-Chinese sentiments. It is Chinese gangsters that are the main antagonists. Their Japanese member ends up turning his back on his Chinese friends. We also find out that in the future, the last resistance against the Daggra aliens is in Tibet (Daggra is a Tibetan term). In other words, Tibet is the last standing ground for a Triad fuck up.

But some will think that conclusion is very close to one “grasping at straws”, so we’ll just keep that to a simple curiosity. Other than that, this is a science fiction story which isn’t purposely trying to put a mirror to humanity or anything like that. Instead of a theme being expressed, we just have a group of characters acting out on the premise which involves their histories (check this out - Milly’s (the main female character) history is the future). Milly’s partner in the present day (now our past of 2002) is Miyamoto, someone who grew up in China and was an indirect victim of the child slave industry lead by his arch nemesis - Mizoguchi - who is the Japanese member of the Triads who is going to lead the fuck up. Milly and Miyamoto’s scene together have a certain warmth to them which really keep the film character driven, and that is where the film excells.

Yes, it has some great SFX (mostly CG), but the not-too-complex story and the warmth coming from their scenes together really do help the film from being derivative. But that’s RETURNER, a simple film with a couple of good things going for it. It’s purely an entertainment and a well made one at that.