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By Jeremy Knox | July 19, 2007

Filmed in 2001 and not released until 2007, “Hazard” is Sion Sono’s least favorite of his own films. While I respect his opinion, I just don’t agree. I can see why he wouldn’t like it. It’s choppy and a bit Spartan and minimalist; with a total lack of budget and guerilla style filmmaking that’s obvious from the get go. However, it’s still a Sono film and that means richly detailed characters and a story that’s wildly unpredictable.

Shot in New York City, most of the minuscule budget was probably spent on bailing out the cast and crew after being arrested several dozen times for filming without permits. I can only guess how many scenes involving pedestrians weren’t improvised. Think of the sort of stuff you saw in Borat, only not played for laughs and without a high power team of lawyers to keep everyone from being thrown in jail. Obviously, it’s just a movie, but it still feels unbalanced and dangerous at times. Like you’re going to see something you’re not supposed to at any minute.

The story is about Shin, a bored student whose life in Japan is so mind-bogglingly safe, numb and dreary that it’s driven him to the brink of insanity. He wants something real. He wants something fun. He wants excitement. He wants danger. He wants, in his own broken understanding of English, “hazard”.

Despite having no friends there, no plan on what to do, no ability to communicate with anyone whatsoever and being hopelessly naïve about what sort of things await him in the big city, Shin goes to New York. Since this takes place during the swansong of the big bad apple in 1991 you can guess that he doesn’t make it very far before he’s mugged and stripped of almost everything but the fillings in his teeth. An hour into his trip and he’s living on the street, shivering from the cold.

Luckily (Or unluckily depending on your point of view) he meets Lee and Takeda, two fairly prosperous gangsters who make money from a speedball laced ice cream cone business, while trying to shoplift a sandwich from a convenience store. Lee and Takeda notice the petty theft, notice that Shin knows no English at all, and take a liking to him immediately. He’s Japanese, and in their eyes that makes him family.

Of the two Lee is the leader, he’s ferociously intelligent and well read but suffers from what I like to call “an over abundance of personality”. So much so that one of his preferred methods of showing affection to an underling is to more or less playfully slap the hell out of him. Takeda, on the other hand, is quieter, but not very smart and a lot more violent.

Despite their relative wealth both men resort to petty crime just for thrills and take the more-than-willing-to try-it-out Shin along for their excursions. The student is shocked at first but then begins to enjoy the adrenaline rush provided by guns, danger, drugs and women.

Jai West, as Lee, provides most of the narrative punch to the movie. He’s so hyperkinetic and bubbling with energy that you can’t help but be swept along. He also talks in a weird seamless mish-mash of Japanese and English Ghettospeak that has to be heard to be believed. After seeing him as a creepy looking gay burglar in Survive Style 5+ and now as a dreadlock wearing, motor mouth, ladies man gang leader, I’d say that West is shaping up to become quite the thespian; which makes me proud to say he’s from Canada.

It’s not a perfect film, it’s not to everyone’s liking, the zero dollar budget is apparent throughout (“1991” era NYC is obviously 2001, for example.) and it’s not as multilayered as Sono’s other work, but that doesn’t matter. It really doesn’t. The film delivers. This is as brutal and gritty and real and existential as anything Scorsese did in the 70’s, and that’s saying a lot.

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