By Aaron Rourke (Melbourne, Australia)
A fitfully amusing homage to the noir mysteries of both 1940’s Hollywood and 1970’s Japan, Phone Call to the Bar may not offer many surprises in its knowingly serpentine tale, but it does deliver solid entertainment, led by a cast who know how to approach the well-crafted material.
The film begins with the closure of a detective’s current case, where he is almost beaten up by the people he is investigating. The detective (Yo Oizumi) is saved at the last minute by his trusted partner Takada (Ryuhei Matsuda), who has arrived late on the scene. Back at the bar he frequents, which doubles as his office as he doesn’t own a mobile phone, the detective (we never find out his name) is quickly offered a new case when a mystery woman calls up begging for help. Saying that her name is Kyoko Kondo, the woman gives the detective vague details and instructions, and after certain reservations, he agrees to take the matter on, but no sooner has he started that a number of people appear, all wanting to make sure that this determined investigator doesn’t uncover the truth.
Although elements hark back to those classic detective films of the 40’s and 50’s, the atmosphere and sensibilities are heavily influenced by those energetic Japanese entries from the 70’s, with an eccentric mixture of tones that waver between goofy humour and impactful violence. The fight scenes are especially stylised, effectively combining streetwise grit and gleeful exaggeration.
Based on the novel by Naomi Azuma, who penned a series of books detailing the detective’s exploits (and all set in Sapporo, Hokkaido), this debut entry makes a successful transition to the big screen. Screenwriters Ryota Kosawa and Yasushi Suto walk a delightfully fine line between parody and genuine mystery, and while many viewers who have seen detective films such as this won’t have too many problems discovering who is behind the mayhem, the journey to that revelation is an absorbing, enjoyable one.
That respectful eye for the genre is also on display by director Hajime Hashimoto (Flower and Snake: Zero / Zebra), who ensures the shifts from mirthful to merciless are handled with skill, never jarring the narrative or making scenes feel out of place.
Performances are terrific. Oizumi, who was outstanding in the 2016 zombie flick I Am a Hero, is pitch-perfect as our hard-boiled detective. Expertly showing a tough exterior that hides a more vulnerable underside, Oizumi offers masterful comic timing while also convincing during the story’s more dramatic moments. Matsuda (9 Souls / The Mohican Comes Home / The Great Passage / My Uncle) is wonderful as Takada, and is hilariously, brilliantly deadpan, seemingly unperturbed by any obstacle that is placed in his path. His car too is as much a character as the cast itself. There is strong work from Koyuki as club owner Saori, excellent character actor Yutaka Matsushige (Doing Time / Talk, Talk, Talk / Outrage Beyond / Midnight Diner) as Yakuza entity Aida, and the legendary Toshiyuki Nishida, best known to western audiences as the original Pigsy in the cult 70’s TV series Monkey, but who has delivered memorable performances in films such as Edo Porn, Get Up!, The Magic Hour, Castle Under Fiery Skies, Star Watching Dog, and Reunion.
Phone Call to the Bar is a lot of fun, and provides as much entertainment as a playful send-up as it does as an actual murder/mystery. Orchestrated with considerable skill by a talented cast and crew, this should have movie-goers wanting to revisit the world of the detective and his laid back assistant Takada. The good news is that there was a sequel in 2013, entitled Detective in the Bar, and was maybe even better than the first film. A third and possible final entry, Last Shot in the Bar, opens in Japanese cinemas at the end of 2017.