Fantastic Fest – K-20: The Fiend With Twenty Faces

Aka “K-20: The Legend of the Mask,” this pulp movie is set in the 1949 of an alternate history where WWII never happened and so Japan is still riven by strong class distinctions and the poor have it pretty bad.  A notorious masked burglar, “K-20”, strikes fear into the hearts of the rich.  A poor circus performer, Heikishi Endo, is framed by K-20 and has to resort to daring thievery of his own to reclaim his good name and thwart the fiend, who is trying to get a big Tesla coil to use as a weapon.  It evokes Batman, The Shadow, Black Mask, Spiderman, and Darkman as inspirations.

I’m going to get this out of the way first thing – this movie was not nearly as good as I’d hoped it would be.  It had some promising bits, but they were all mostly squandered.

The set design was nice – in the first scene, the alt-history city looks nice and steampunkey, with police gyrocopters labelled in Japanese and German both (Polizei!).  You never see any Germans, however, and except for the Tesla coil as a McGuffin the steampunk elements are never utilized either.

Furthermore, I couldn’t figure out what Takeshi Kaneshiro was trying to do with his character, the piece’s hero, Heikichi Endo.  He allegedly starts out as a master acrobat and illusionist in the circus and after being framed takes up thievery to get back at K-20 – but some of the time, he really seems to achieve nearly Sling Blade-like levels of mild retardation.  “I just want to go back the the circus and pet my doves!” he mumbles, clutching himself, in several scenes.  To quote the much better movie Zombieland from yesterday, “Nut up or shut up!”

This could be forgivable if the action was good.  It is not.  His “training” (in what tries to be a nod to genre tropes, he basically reads a book of thieving lore and becomes able to do pretty much supernatural tricks of disguise) is basically free running (parkour).  Free running is fun and all but it’s already being overexposed in movies and needs a little something (like a decent fight) to spice it up.  But the martial arts action is very few and far between, and when showdowns happen between K-20 and Endo they are nothing to write home about – a lot of jumping but that’s about it.  They finally have to resort to a gun to try to kill each other, as they realize that even beating on a helpless opponent with their sissy punches isn’t going to result in more than light bruising.

The identity of K-20 is supposed to be a big secret and shocking reveal – and I hoped it would be one of the less obvious characters – but no, if you have ever watched movies you’ll know who K-20 is very early on.  The love interest is one-dimensional and annoying; you’re supposed to be impressed by her being so game to leap into daring plots and pilot gyrocopter rescues, but then she opens her mouth and talks and it’s ruined.

The old inventor-thief and his ex-swindler wife are the only bright spots in the film; they are interesting and play their parts well.

I am pre-sold when you tell me “it’s a steampunk pulp hero martial arts movie,” and you have to work pretty hard to un-sell me, but K-20 managed to do that.  Why the hell do they call him K-20?  Why do all of the group of thieves he loudly despises immediately pledge to do everything in their life’s power to help him?  Why is every plot point so brutally and hamhandedly obvious?  I don’t know, but I can’t recommend K-20.

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