Hana-Bi (1997)
a.k.a. Fireworks

D: Takeshi Kitano
S: Takeshi Kitano, Kayoko Kishimoto, Ren Osugi

From its enigmatic opening shots to its gut wrenching final moments, 'Beat' Takeshi's latest film continually reminds us that he possesses one of the most distinctive and unique visions in contemporary world cinema. Playful but dark, despairing but uplifting, Hana-Bi embraces its complex and contradictory emotions and embodies them in the character played by the actor/director himself. Inscrutable and taciturn to the point of parody, he strides through the film with the physical presence of an action hero and the perceptible inner depth of any great performer. Here he plays a retired policeman who attempts to provide his wife and his partner with moments of solace as his last act of kindness in repayment of an unspoken moral debt following a daring bank robbery.

Like a Japanese Clint Eastwood, Kitano's mature cineaste's grasp of the form allows him to transcend the limitations of genre and produce variations on a theme which are both realistic in themselves and yet transparently formulaic. Kitano's favoured model has been the gangster film (Sonatine, Boiling Point), and the world of Hana-Bi is one populated with thuggish yakuza, violent shoot outs and fisticuffs and a detective sub plot. But it is also enlivened by the interjection of moments of vivid beauty and colour, and even tenderness. From the shots of his recent paintings which form the opening credits and continue to play a part in the film's pacing to the continuing presence of bright-coloured flowers in the foreground and background of otherwise ordinary images of the city, Kitano incorporates multiple image systems into his narrative which give the feeling of poetry despite the subject matter.

The film consists largely of carefully composed tableaux where characters sometimes speak and sometimes do not need to in order for the drama of their relationships to be played out in a landscape which is integral to their states of mind. Kitano sits wordlessly at his table with his grieving wife and plays board games, his paralysed partner sits staring at the sea as it laps around the wheels of his chair, a sinister yakuza faces off against the cop holding an empty gun to his head. There are also momentary engagements with strange and strange and outlandish people who populate this world including a gruff junkyard owner and his glue-sniffing female assistant which make it seem a bit like a Coen Brothers movie. But while the film is deliberately paced, with the benefit of a sneaky flashback-flash forward structure and some deft balancing of moments of sudden and extreme violence with long stretches of agonising build-up, the film is never less than involving. It does not forego the pleasures of good storytelling in the name of some nebulous 'artistic' goal.

Kitano's films are pure art in that they are an attempt to make sense of the shapes and sensations which define the artist's world both for his benefit and that of a prospective patron. Hana-Bi is self-reflexively concerned with the meaning and production of art as the paralysed cop struggles with drawing and painting to relieve his frustration. Kitano's paintings are used to provide counterpoint and illustration, from the images of creatures with flowers instead of heads to the final work entitled "Suicide." But it is a popular art (or perhaps populist) which never sacrifices comprehensibility for ambiguity merely for the sake of it. Though it is a film replete with contradictions, it has a strong sense of character and honour which informs their interplay. Audiences will find it touching and funny, tragic and epic and may find themselves shocked by its scenes of physical violence not simply because of their intensity, but their place and function in the film.

It may still be however that Kitano remains somewhat rarefied for general English-speaking audiences and when compared with a hit like Shall We Dance? comes more obviously from an entirely different cultural tradition than western audiences are accustomed to. But there are many rewards for viewers with sufficient motivation and particularly fans of his previous work.

Review by Harvey O'Brien copyright 1998.