A review by Damian Cannon.
Copyright © Movie Reviews UK 1997
An impressive re-entry into the world of yakuza criminals and the cops who try
to contain them, Hana-bi is notably lyrical and evasive in style. On the streets
of modern day Japan a flashy motor carries three detectives towards a dangerous stakeout.
Intent on trapping an armed and dangerous villain, Nishi (Takeshi Kitano) and Horibe (Ren
Osugi) have his apartment staked out. By the time they arrive, however, Nishi has been
persuaded to visit his terminally ill wife Miyuki (Kayoko Kishimoto), in hospital. To
compound matters neither of the cops already on duty is willing to stay on with Horibe;
they've both got lives to attend to beyond the daily grind of police work. Thus Horibe is
left alone, a situation which has horrific repercussions when the gangster returns.
At a later date Nishi is no longer a detective, instead spending his days
caring for Miyuki and brutally negotiating with yakuza loan sharks. To their annoyance
Nishi has borrowed a large sum of cash and is refusing to pay back even the interest, let
alone the entire debt. Whenever they send over some young thugs to play rough, Nishi
bloodily assaults them. Hence there is an impasse. Down the road Horibe is confined to a
wheelchair, abandoned by his once-loving family and contemplating suicide. Nishi seems to
share his pain, perhaps remorseful at leaving his colleague, and does what he can to help.
Back in the police force the eager young men who replaced Nishi and Horibe are confronting
the very same problems; an endless circle connects as they find themselves becoming numbed
in the manner of their predecessors.
In form and execution Hana-bi is so unlike traditional, principally
Hollywood, films that an essay could be written on this point alone. At the eye of the
action stands Nishi, played with affecting simplicity by Kitano. In a film that harks back
to the silent era, so sparse is the dialogue, Nishi is taciturn to the point of appearing
dumb. From his perspective almost everything worth saying has already been said, so why
waste time on empty words; usually a look or a gesture is all that's required. The
surprise is that this reluctance to elaborate and explain stretches over to Kitano's other
domains; writing and direction. Throughout Hana-bi there are loose ends, looming
holes which niggle for attention; Kitano ignores them. In a narrative as fractured as
this, such features are merely an expression of the underlying anarchy. No one can really
understand why another person acts in a certain way, so why should Kitano try to provide
all the answers here?
The reason why this approach succeeds, where any other film might collapse in a
quivering heap, is the strength of the performances. Kitano puts on a role superbly
tailored to his strengths, injecting Nishi with a healthy dose of contradiction. In one
instant a warm and gentle husband, in the next a sadistic and ruthless bully; two sides to
a character that becomes three-dimensional in Kitano's hands. Working against him for much
of the film is Kishimoto, carrying a burden of impending death with barely two sentences
to express her grief. Her entire performance is composed of glances, expressions and
unforced laughter. The chemistry between her and Kitano is so wonderful it illuminates the
entire movie; where other stories might spend a hundred pages proving a love, here the
harmony is obvious. The third leg of this emotional tripod is Osugi, perhaps even more
opaque than Kitano. There is an indefinable weight to his character that resonates deeply,
though much of this may be down to his associated art.
It is this latter element which makes Hana-bi so visually arresting;
the placing of Kitano's own pieces throughout the film. A curious and disturbing mixture
of flower and beast, these works both open up and obscure the dynamics of the characters.
They hint frustratingly at worlds beyond the surface, yet never actually reveal them;
perhaps this is the touchstone of the entire film. Hana-bi captivates and compels
you to watch, then refuses to even consider resolving its ambiguity. On the other hand,
however, this quicksilver quality allows Hana-bi to transcend its genre; this is
a tale of people, not of guns.
A striking aspect of Hana-bi is Kitano's amaazing versatility. Not
content with writing, directing and starring, he is also responsible for the razor sharp
editing. Characterised by jarring but effective cuts between counterpoint scenes, Kitano
is more than able in this field also. Interestingly while this makes Hana-bi
something of a one-man show, he never forgets to include minor roles and give them
the space to live. For memorable examples of this generosity in action, watch for the
regretful junkyard owner and the beach walker who lets slip an impolitic remark. The
texture added by these figures is a great aid towards understanding the main characters,
which in itself is justification for creating them. However, lest you decide that Hana-bi
is a sombre and chilling affair, be warned that it is anything but! Smartly written humour
breaks up the poetic tone beautifully, a nod towards Kitano's comic roots and a welcome
relief at all times.
This film was viewed at the 1997 Birmingham International Film &
Runtime: 103 Minutes
Note: Takeshi Kitano won the Five Continents Award from the European
Film Awards (1997), the Critics Award from the Sao Paulo International Film Festival
(1997) and the Golden Lion Award from the Venice International Film Festival (1997) for Fireworks.
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