The Sad Cafe (2011) – By Josh Samford

"I’m a hired killer. Death is my job. Death is my life." – Jack

As the official Asian cinema geek here at Rogue Cinema, it was sort of a no-brainer to have Bennie Woodell’s The Sad Cafe sent to me for review. The filmmaker himself makes no bones about his project being almost entirely influenced by Asian cinema, but Hong Kong film in particular. Taking a cue from director Johnnie To and Wai Ka-Fai, Woodell looks to craft a very brooding and atmospheric take on both the crime drama and the world of action. Does he succeed however? I would say he does a better job than any other Western director than I have probably seen. He borrows from the To handbook, throws in dashes of the existential dread of Takeshi Kitano and allows it to percolate with a very special form of pessimism that seems to be entirely his own creation. While not a perfect film, it shows a lot of promise from a growing young director.

Jack is a loner who visits the same cafe every day just so he can catch a glance of a young woman who works there. Her name is Rose and Jack desperately wants to pursue her but feels that in doing so he would provide too much danger for the young woman. You see, Jack is a hitman for the mob and his last big relationship ended in tragedy due to his employment. Rose, unknown to Jack, feels the same way about the strange drifter who always keeps his sunglasses within arm’s reach. Jack was originally brought into the mob by one of the captains named Aries, and the two have had a very antagonistic relationship throughout the years. Things have recently become worse due mainly to Jack not having the same affection for the criminal lifestyle anymore. Indeed, he’d rather trade it all in and just spend his time with Rose, but will he ever be able to do just that?

Although I would hate for The Sad Cafe to lose its own sense of identity by continually bringing up other films, there’s definitely a lot of Hong Kong cinema felt here. In the melodramatic voiceover, the fashion style and of course the epic use of slow motion, The Sad Cafe is a love letter to Asian cinema. In all of the previously mentioned things, I can see other films but when you put them together its something a wee bit different. That melodramatic voiceover is one of the first things you’ll notice, as Woodell proves to have a knack for dialogue that comes off as "cool", but not too over the top that it no longer seems realistic. That melodramatic attitude certainly seems in keeping with the Heroic Bloodshed (Hong Kong action movies, think John Woo) vibe, but it is a far more brooding and dark sort of narrative than what one might expect. The entire production, for that matter is fairly baroque.

"They say these things can kill you, I tell cigarettes to take a number." – Jack

If I have any grief with the film, it is that the plot can seemingly become a bit lost in all of the stylistic flare. While I think the phrase "style over substance" is a bit contrived and maybe a bit too raw to attribute to a film such as this one, it is relatively apt for the description. If there is one aspect that does seek to raise the film slightly above the expected "cool for the sake of cool" pastiche, it is from the performances of the cast members. The characters tend to create and sustain the emotional core for the film and generates all of its power from start to finish. Bradley Fowler who plays Jack and Katie Lanigan who plays Rose have a great chemistry and they convey their doomed romance in the least sensationalized manner possible, which is once again perfectly befitting for a tribute to Asian cinema (where love stories are almost always low-key). Although melodrama is dabbled with throughout, the sequences where we see these two fall in love are hardly over-wrought and they comes across as some of the more touching moments within the film.

Although a microbudget film such as this one usually doesn’t rely heavily on action, there are at least some moments of interest here for action film fans. Although it goes without saying that you shouldn’t come into this one expecting a lot of hyper-kinetik choreography. Instead, if you’re familiar with Johnnie To, imagine the slowmotion gun battle from The Mission but elongated and placed inside of a brothel. Now add a small amount of martial arts and you basically have The Sad Cafe in terms of its action content. Some of the fight choreography comes off as a bit too blatant at times however. In that regard some of the action tends to look a bit too stylized, i.e. we watch as the actors purposefully pose in their best "cool" stance after disposing of several villains. This shouldn’t come as a surprise after seeing the black suits, dark sunshades and black khakis that the cast all seem to wear; this is a movie all about macho posturing. You can still have a certain amount of fun with this over the top attitude though, I must confess.

Overall, I was thoroughly impressed with The Sad Cafe. Although it certainly is a title that has its issues, it is a promising piece of work from a director I plan to keep my eye upon. He takes his influences, makes them well known and then delivers his own vision through a scope obviously touched by those influences. The work never seems derivative or blatantly referencing other films, which is a classier way of doing things in this post-Kill Bill environment. For that, I am thankful. Definitely check it out if you’re given the opportunity. You can read more about it at:

http://jianghuproductions.net/