You Should Be Watching… The Shinjuku Incident (2009)

Director: Derek Yee

Main Cast: Jackie Chan, Naoto Takenaka, Daniel Wu, Xu Jinglei, Fan Bingbing


For most of us the term “foreign film” is an immediate turn off. There’s something about having to read subtitles that just sends your mind back to the boredom of secondary school language classes (don’t worry, the irony of making you read a blog post whilst criticising reading subtitles isn’t lost on me).

With foreign films you lose the luxury of being able to look away from the screen and do something else whilst the film’s playing in the background, you can’t rely on picking up the odd word and still being aware of what’s going on… you have to stay FULLY LOCKED IN… and that’s the beauty of it. Foreign film opens not only your eyes, but your mind, to the way that the world is experienced by people from all walks of life.

“How better to understand your fellow global citizens than by watching art created by their people?”

“The Shinjuku Incident” would be a good place to start.




The Chinese migrant communities in Tokyo live shadowy lives. The Japanese neither acknowledge nor welcome them. They are shunned by the mainstream society, hounded by the yakuza, and go about their days under fear of being discovered and deported. This is an alien world for Steelhead (Jackie Chan), a poor tractor repairman from northern China, whose only reason for making the perilous journey to Tokyo is to find his girlfriend Xiu Xiu, who had arrived in the city earlier but hadn’t contacted him since.


However, in the midst of trying to keep a low-profile whilst searching for his beloved Xiu Xiu, Steelhead loses his Chinese documents and can no longer return to his homeland. Fortunately he is welcomed by his countrymen who lodge and work in Shinjuku and help him to find illegal work.


In his search of a decent living, Steelhead unwittingly finds himself pit against the Japanese yakuza. He comes to realise that the migrants had to stand united if they wanted to go about their lives without fear of oppression by not only the Japanese underworld but also Chinese gangs.


Can one simple Chinese migrant keep the peace and stop his friends from crossing a line that they will never be able to come back from?


The ‘Shinjuku Incident’ presents us with Jackie Chan in his most brutal on-screen incarnation, and it’s every bit as unsettling as you would imagine. His usual wide-eyed naivety is replaced by a more serious demeanour, a far cry from the man whose innate playfulness made him the star of a children’s TV show in the early 2000’s.

It’s not the Jackie Chan that we needed, but it is the Jackie Chan that he needed to become.


Despite having a career which has spanned across five decades and over 100 movies, Jackie Chan has had limited opportunities to explore his acting talents. He has been pigeonholed into playing the same character in all of his roles, the ‘unwittingly funny hero with a badass mastery of martial arts’. Playing these roles has brought him fame and fortune beyond his wildest dreams, but must be somewhat unfulfilling on an artistic level. Even if the fulfillment of these roles was still there, the sad reality is at 65 years of age, Jackie isn’t getting any younger… there are only so many falls one can take, and bones one can break before their body starts to fail them and taking on roles like the one in ‘The Shinjuku Incident’ is his way of staying ahead of the curve.

The beauty of Jackie Chan’s character in this film is that it sees him having to make choices with greater consequences, choices which are very different than the usual dilemmas we’re used to seeing him face (e.g. “should I go for a throat punch or a palm strike?”). He’s still the hero that we all know and love, but this time he’s caught in between the wrong side of the law and the right side of morality.


Steelhead and Jie 

The more that Steelhead (Chan) tries to help someone (his friends, his former lover, etc), the more that he disrupts the natural order of things in Japan – things may not have been fair but they were functional. It’s sort of like saving an antelope from being preyed on by a lion in the wild whilst on safari, you can watch or you can look away, but you should never interfere. By empowering the migrants to stand up for themselves against the Yakuza, he inadvertently pushes them into positions that they never should have been in in the first place.

Whilst none of the other characters command the same level of attention as Steelhead, they all have very compelling stories of their own. Through an excellent use of ‘time-leap’ method (skipping many years into the future) we are able to see the character development of all of the Chinese migrants as they transition from ‘timid sewer workers’ to ‘blood-thirsty mobsters’, namely his best friend Jie (played by Daniel Wu).


This film also explores the complicated historical dynamic exists between the Chinese and the Japanese. Most Westerners (including myself), won’t have a great understanding of the challenges that people in these countries face and the obstacles that they have to overcome, but watching films like this one will give us an insight into a world that was shut off to outsiders for many years. There are multiple sides to every story, so don’t expect this film to give you all of the information that you need to know about these two very unique cultures, but it should spark a desire to learn more.

Be prepared because ‘The Shinjuku Incident’ is unnecessary gory at times and some scenes aren’t for the faint-hearted, especially the scene where someone’s hand gets cut off (I won’t tell you who). Much of this is probably Jackie Chan overcompensating for being seen as a ‘soft-touch’ throughout his career.

This film isn’t groundbreaking by any stretch of the imagination, but it is a refreshing change of pace from the typical American films that most of us are used to; and an introduction to the Jackie Chan that we might have to start getting used to seeing as he enters the latter stages of his career…

As Usual Comments Are Encouraged!