Sometimes I don't know what to expect from a movie before I see it. I go knowing that I'll see something different -- not just the latest Jennifer Aniston comedy or generic Hollywood actioner -- but I don't know much about a film's story or background. I just go hoping it'll prove to be a good experience.
I went to see K-20: The Fiend with Twenty Faces (aka K-20: The Legend of the Mask) at least as much because I wanted to see a different type of movie as because I wanted to experience a new theater. Viz Cinema is located in San Francisco's Japantown. (If you're at all familiar with the famed anime/manga producer/distributor Viz Media, then you know Viz Cinema's parentage.) I had not been aware that this new theater had opened until I stumbled across it in the online movie listings.
I'm glad I went to test out the new theater with this movie. Other than being a bit too air conditioned (and that's saying something; I'm from Wisconsin and I miss my snow), the underground theater is clean and comfortable, with plenty of good seats and fine presentation of the film.
And the film itself? K-20 is not going to win any awards on the originality of its storyline -- in that category, it's fairly conventional. But the style and design and frankly the gusto with which it tells its story carries you through those moments where you'd lose all interest in a connect-the-dots-type Hollywood product. The moment the film stated, with an aerial shot of a fictional Japanese capital city in 1949 -- complete with a police airship dispatching small airplanes to monitor the city -- I knew I'd like this film. I never wavered in that.
The story is set in a timeline in which World War II never happened, so the old ruling classes continue to rule Japan. (Early on, we're shown a headline declaring that the war was avoided by a peace treaty with the United States and the United Kingdom; we'll not squabble here about the fact that Japan had been at war -- and quite viciously so -- in China for about a decade before the U.S. and UK got their fingers burned in the conflict. But whatever.) In this milieu, a masked thief named K-20 has become notorious for stealing valuable objects from the rich. When an innocent circus performer, Heikichi Endo (Takeshi Kaneshiro), is framed for the crimes, he must clear his name and find the real culprit.
Hunting down the thief is a dashing baron and his teenage junior detective assistant. The baron also happens to be engaged to a duchess who's not sure she wants the pampered life of an aristocrat. Heikichi Endo is helped by a local band of small-time thieves to train as a master thief himself, the better to catch K-20 and clear his name.
Most of the above is no good for getting across to you the joy of watching this film. Because it's often in the stunned expressions of the other characters to an unexpected exclamation from the duchess, or a sudden twist in the arsenal of the story tellers (the junior detectives caught me off-guard -- and I was even more pleased that they didn't over-use the device), that you realize you're watching a film that was made to be enjoyed, not just consumed.
If you're like me, you'll probably guess K-20's real identity very early on. But again, that doesn't take away the enjoyment or the suspense. Will Heikichi Endo be able to clear his name? Just what is the duchess up to? What's going to happen to all those orphaned kids? It's worth the ride to find out.
One casting note: Heikichi Endo actor Takeshi Kaneshiro starred in the 2002 Japanese science fiction film Returner. Another film worth checking out.