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Saturday, February 14, 2009

GREAT MOVIES: Hana-Bi (aka Fireworks, 1997)

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*Note as of 07/14/12* - Click here to read my updated review for Hana-Bi on Commentary Track.

Nishi (played by “Beat” Takeshi Kitano) is a no-nonsense but quiet man, and is the quintessential protagonist found in most of Kitano’s films. He’s a cop whose daughter had suddenly died, a fact mentioned only in gossip by co-workers and whose wife, Miyuki (Kayoko Kishimoto) has developed leukemia; possibly any disease would suffice the screenplay in order to signify that a mental illness can cause a physical one. Nishi wears dark sunglasses and sits around most of the time, smoking and contemplating the quiet brought forth by sudden death. However, he’s never suicidal because of his strong bond with his wife.

The film sees Nishi as a normal person but he can also be seen as a psychopath, due to his tendency to suddenly attack others and decimate them quickly. Be they Yakuza punks or straightforward, undisciplined youths Nishi is quick to anger and he strikes as quick as lightning. But he always wears a blank expression. He’s simply a wall, lacking all emotion yet somehow that we know he means well.

Nishi is indebted to the Yakuza and refuses to pay them back simply because he doesn’t want to, nor does he like to be hurried; the Yakuza apparently don’t frighten him. He’s even audacious enough to ask the block leader’s boss for another 4 million yen (approximately $40,000 USD) so that he could place it towards his wife’s medical bills; nothing is more important to him than the well being of his loved ones, an admirable theme that is present in most of Kitano’s tragedies.

Nishi’s best friend Horibe (Ren Osugi), also a cop, is shot in the line of duty and is crippled and in the process, left wheelchair bound. Horibe’s wife and daughter leave him and he tries to commit suicide, but his friends save him in time. He eventually agrees to see the brighter side of life and does what he can, taking up painting; his paintings depict bizarrely beautiful people and creatures with flowers for heads.

The shooting of Horibe and the later killing of another cop on the police force are showcased, with some realism throughout the film in fragmented flashbacks, adding to the film’s dramatic arc and sense of gratuitous violence. There is a puzzle for the audience to solve and the film unravels it ever so eloquently. There are many layers to the story of the film and the use of a fragmented timeline is very suitable towards making this an art-house project not a Michael Bay movie.

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The plot centers on Nishi quitting the police force and eventually having to contemplate robbing a bank in order to pay off the Yakuza once and for all. But because he’s no longer a cop, the Yakuza don’t take his games lightly and pursues him further. But before more graphic violence ensues, Nishi takes Miyuki to the beach and they have a wonderful and, ironically melancholy time.

The robbery is ironic in that it consists of Nishi dressing up a stolen taxi cab as a police cruiser, dressing himself up as a cop, and walking into a bank with a pistol and simply demanding cash without even speaking. I will say nothing further on the matter except that it’s brilliant and is entirely within character.

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Does this film sound exciting or depressing? Well, Kitano’s cops and Yakuza epics are filled with philosophical intrigues, the contemplation of death or suicide, murder, brutal beatings, and above all a mysteriously poignant and startling beauty. He uses a minimalist approach in his filmmaking: his characters do not walk or talk much; they barely react to happenings outside of their surroundings. And when all a character must do in a single scene is walk the camera is fixated upon him or her for minutes on end until he or she leaves the frame. Kitano also likes to leave the shot on screen after said character had already walked out of frame for a few seconds more so that the audience can feel the time go by, and also to punctuate the scene with a moment of minimalist serenity. I believe that he’s borrowing from the great Yasujiro Ozu and Andrei Tarkovsky who are, personally the greatest masters of minimalism.

The violence in Kitano’s films, as I’d mentioned earlier is showcased like a flash of lightning; we never see it coming. And when it does, it lingers in our minds for a few seconds while we slowly process what we’d just witnessed. By the time the following scene takes place we understand exactly who had died and who did the killing and why. As an example, early in the film Nishi is seated in a bar and two Yakuza youths approach him. They pester him about overdue payments until he grabs a pair of chopsticks and stabs the Yakuza youth that’s standing behind him in his eyes. In the next shot, we see that the other Yakuza youth had fallen off his stool and as Nishi stands up he kicks the youth in the mouth and walks away; all in one swift movement. The youth on the ground is bewildered and spewing blood. There is a story in the violence that’s on screen and the film’s story is dependent on violence depicted within.

I love Kitano’s cinema. His movies look and feel like they were directed and shot by young, indie filmmakers who know how to tell their stories without having to resort to clich├ęs or unnecessary dialogue. The minimalism approach is used in all of Kitano’s films and while watching any of his films we should embrace it with all our hearts. So what if the film is violent? Through the way it is constructed not a single shot goes to waste and everything means exactly what need it needs to; no punches are pulled. I am reminded of style of the French New Wave, the way that useless actions and pointless dialogue are cut out.

Kitano is a superstar and had made a great impression on me from very early on. I will follow his cinema until he stops breathing and I hope there’s still a long way to go.

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