This is not the Hong-Kong-retro-80s-neo-noir-Tiger-Cage-type-of-urban-cop-brawler the credits seem to suggest (of almost Kung Fury level pastiche). But there is this faint fragrance of one, of echoes reverberating, of one taking place elsewhere, in the peripheral. Hydra is a mellow and slight tone poem, consisting of small moments, lights and shadows, trains coming and going and empty walls. That lets the camera linger on hollowed out, depleted spaces just a little longer than usual. An odd movie of seemingly different tonalities co-existing. There is an interesting contrast shaped through the use of synthwave, 80s action movie music, city scapes, neon lights and almost hypnotic shots offset by a small unassuming naturalistic drama in a pub. At least for about 30 minutes.

These initial 30 minutes are among the finest in an independent contemporary action film to date and are not even related to the action. There is something rare here for action cinema. Mystical, low-key and disparate. There’s a reverence for place and a soft humanity present. At its center, there are three people working at a bar called Hydra. The cook, Takashi, is a quiet, stern man with a mysterious past, which is slowly catching up to him.

There is a scene where Takashi (Masanori Mimoto) picks out his old, seemingly, almost revered knife. The knife in Japanese culture is closely entwined with cooking. Historically it shares origins with the Japanese sword:

For a Japanese chef, their knife is an extension of their body.
-The Culture of the Japanese Knife, Masamoto-Sohonten

Traditionally it is believed a tool that is used over a long time will be inhabited by a spirit. In Hydra, the knives (and in one case, a screwdriver) really are extensions of body and spirit, and if misplaced, spell certain death. Takashi has put away his knife and moved on, but the scar on his body is a reminder, an internalization of the steel, always a part of him. This brief moment seems to connect to one of cinema’s deepest explorations on knife culture, A Grande Arte (Walter Salles Jr, 1991), which romanticizes and fetishizes the blade as a mythical and cinematic object. As the user scvanv says in his IMDb review: “The science of blade fighting smoldered weakly for five hundred year in remote outposts of Indonesia, Philippines and Japan where the gun never quite captured the imagination of peoples who had truly understood steel.”

Seeing knives as a cinematic device leads to, at least in passing, acknowledging the brutal savagery of South Korean cinema. In The Man From Nowhere (Lee Jeong-Beom, 2010) and in the end fight of The City of Violence (Ryoo Seung-Wan, 2006), fast editing, and the slitting of joints to incapacitate enemies represent a flow of sharp, short bursts of clear, visual poetry and violence, in which weapons destroy life.

The action on display in Hydra is mesmerizing but brief. In these intense sequences of rapid hand to hand/knife fights, there is a stylization at play reminiscent of the tremendous achievement in contemporary martial arts cinema that was Re:Born (Yuji Shimomura, 2016). In Re:Born, combat supervisor Yoshitaka Inagawa brought and applied his knowledge of real close-range knife combat, his own developed system “zero range combat”. This combined with main star TAK Sakaguchi’s physical specificity, of leaning in, engaging and transforming his whole body into the action, made for something truly memorable and thematically rich. While Hydra doesn’t push that far in its visual portrayal of combat, it ventures close. Sharing action choreography duties are Naohiro Kawamoto, Masanori Mimoto and Kensuke Sonomura, as well as action coordinator Koji Kawamoto.

There is also evidence of some Donnie Yen influence, in particular the SPL/Flash Point-era. SPL had action choreographers Tanigaki Kenji, Iwamoto Junya, So Tung, Wong Wai Leung, Yan Hua and Sammo Hung (uncredited). Flash Point had, once again long time collaborator Tanigaki Kenji, Hua Jan and old pal John Salvitti, and Donnie Yen acted as action director on both. What Donnie Yen and collaborators did in these movies was quite remarkable. In both, they experimented on how to capture and incorporate MMA-inspired grappling and ground work into the action cinema vocabulary to push ever forward. Maybe most influential is the alleyway fight between Donnie Yen and Wu Jing, where two masters of cinematic combat infused quite a bit of improvisation to capture a rawness and urgency to the fight, while not losing its cinematic, dynamic expression. This scene alone has arguably had considerable impact on how to capture close quarter short range weapon fighting in cinema today. In Flash Point, implementation of MMA, grappling techniques and how to convey speed, fluidity, organic transitions and power were expanded on and refined.

Finally, there is Xu Haofeng and his films Sword Identity (2011), Judge Archer (2012) and The Final Master (2015). In his care for detail and realism, bordering on the absurd, is also felt as a reference. Xu Haofeng is the most interesting in contemporary action cinema, in how he painstakingly tries to inform his choreography with how martial arts looked before cinematic representation and to rebuild a new visual language. While not necessarily closer to reality, it rather seems to strive to adapting the visuals to the physical movement of the body rather than the other way around, distorting and diluting the martial arts into “what works on camera”.

While Hydra probably isn’t aiming for this, the heavy stylization, the simultaneous “realistic” and heightened fluidity of movement, coupled with the stylistic/narrative device of exclusion (placing crucial segments of the fights off-screen), does bring Xu Haofeng to mind and feels invigorating and congenial. Particularly, this mode of exclusion, while jarring at first, is impressive economical visual storytelling at play: since the outcome of these bouts have already been communicated clearly, there is no point in showing it. There is an excitement to the physicality on display here: hunched bodies, short bladed weapons gleaming, and fast, almost weightless attacks. However, it needs to be pointed out, the constant and intrusive music weakens these scenes considerably. While at times accentuating a kind of over-the-top 80s movie feel that’s not really present, these scenes are clear examples of where only the sounds of the bodies, fabric, thuds, scrapes from shoes on floors and the clanging and cutting of knives should have sufficed.

What’s worse, when trying to integrate these fight scenes into this modest mood piece, the earlier formalist confidence stumbles considerably and it all starts to fall apart. A trite B-grade movie narrative rears its ugly head, complete with clumsy flashbacks, dull exposition and one particularly tired action trope. The short running time, as well as the more prominent action in this latter part of the movie makes it easier to endure, but it is still disappointing, especially in regards to what came before.

Kensuke Sonomura, Hydra‘s director, action choreographer, editor and supporting actor, shows great promise here, this being his directorial debut. He is already an established action choreographer in both movies and video games in Japan and has worked with, amongst others, Shimomura Yuji (Death Trance, 2005) and Mamoru Oshii (Nowhere Girl, 2015), as well as on Manhunt (2017), John Woo’s underrated smooth-jazzy return to bullet-riddled action mayhem. Mamoru Oshii in particular seems to have influenced this lingering sense in establishing space and mood, and to grant the urban landscape time. It’s truly a welcome visual addition to martial arts cinema, a sort of cheap, crude lo-grade DTV/VOD actioner drunk on Blade Runner and Michael Mann. While clearly indebted to these, it’s also quite wonderful, with some striking images. If able to free himself from conventional narrative trappings and issue some harsher control over his means, Kensuke Sonomura will become one to watch. For a moment there, Hydra wrestled its way out of any budgetary and time-related constraints and delivered one of the most interesting action cinema experiences of the year. This comes highly recommended for anyone with a passing interest in action cinema.

HYDRA – No official release date outside Japan yet
Directed by Kensuke Sonomura
With Kensuke Sonomura, Masanori Mimoto, Miu

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