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Wednesday, September 13, 2017

HANA-BI, aka "Fireworks" -- Blu-ray Review by Porfle

Japanese film legend "Beat" Takeshi Kitano (BATTLE ROYALE, "MXC") has a taciturn, sometimes sullen and morose, sometimes painfully sad and hang-dog sort of screen character who can switch from dull joviality to abrupt, shocking violence faster than a cat with distemper. 

In his seventh film as director, HANA-BI, aka "Fireworks" (1997), Takeshi plays Nishi, a haggard cop nearing the end of his career just as his beloved wife (Kayoko Kishimoto), stricken with cancer, is nearing the end of her life. 

Nishi is into the Yakuza for a lot of money, facing constant death threats from their enforcers.  And to make matters worse, an old friend on the force, Horibe (Ren Ôsugi, SHIN GODZILLA), gets crippled for life by a gunman's bullets while taking Nishi's place on a stakeout. 

As in his previous films (VIOLENT COP, BOILING POINT, OUTRAGE), Takeshi's character is quick to violence, and as a director he depicts it with the shocking brutality of a Coppola or Scorcese gangster thriller.

Here, however, Nishi takes such action only when pushed or in any way provoked.  Although, as we'll see, at this stage he's far beyond the point of taking any crap from anybody including Yakuza hitmen or random street punks. 

Otherwise, Nishi's constant sorrow leaves him in a state of dull resignation that's mostly silent (he barely says ten lines in the entire movie) as we study his subtle expressions with an empathetic perception.  As usual, much is going on below the surface of Takeshi's performance, both as actor and director.

The film is beautifully shot, with images ranging from gritty urban milieu (the harsh cop scenes) to picturesque rural Japan.  Takeshi is unflinching when  Nishi and his fellow cops take down Horibe's shooter in a clumsy ballet of blood, or when a massacre within the claustrophobic confines of a car yields artistically wrought death tableaux spilling out against a backdrop of virgin snow.

This is contrasted with the sequence in which Nishi, who is unable to express his feeling verbally, takes his dying wife on an extended excursion to Mt. Fuji and other scenic locales.  (After robbing a bank, that is, but we won't go into that now.) 

Takeshi indulges his sentimental side here, yet Nishi's outer stoicism prevents things from lapsing into bathos.  There's a serenity to his stiff, oddly inexpressive manner, and his wife's understanding and acceptance of it, that makes the sequence sadly endearing in a way that raw emotion couldn't.

As this subplot plays out, Takeshi tells other intertwining stories including the plight of Horibe--abandoned by his wife and daughter, confined to a wheelchair, and constantly entertaining thoughts of suicide--as he tries to assuage his grief with a newfound interest in painting (Takeshi contributes his own artworks here).  But everything he does only seems to accentuate his despair.

The Blu-ray from Film Movement Classics is in 1.85:1 widescreen with Japanese stereo sound and English subtitles.  Extras include a commentary by David Fear, a making-of featurette, trailers from other Takeshi films, and an attractive illustrated booklet containing an essay by filmmaker/historian Jasper Sharp.

Fans of composer Joe Hisaishi (SPIRITED AWAY, PRINCESS MONONOKE, KIKI'S DELIVERY SERVICE) will relish his lush score for this emotionally and visually compelling story that wavers, like real life, amidst various extremes while exploring the subtleties in between.


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