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Memphis Flyer Big Bang Theory

By Chris Herrington

FEBRUARY 8, 1999:  By all reliable accounts and available firsthand experience, we’re in the midst of a fertile period for international cinema, with Iran, France, and the Far East, in particular, producing significant quantities of important work. In this landscape, the likes of Japan’s Takeshi Kitano, Hong Kong’s Wong Kar-Wai, Iran’s Abbas Kiarostami, and Canada’s Atom Egoyan may well be the present-day equivalents of Bergman, Fellini, or Kurosawa. But, with the exception of the English-language films of Egoyan, none of these directors has received anything like widespread distribution in the States, so most of us may never know.

In 1998, after a decade of filmmaking, Takeshi Kitano made a splash in the U.S. Fireworks, his first film since a near-fatal 1994 motorcycle accident and the winner of the Venice Film Festival, opened in a few major U.S. cities to tremendous reviews and good business, prompting a domestic release of his previous film, the 1993 yakuza (the Japanese gangster genre) film Sonatine. Oddly enough, Sonatine found a home on Memphis screens, but Fireworks didn’t. In what, to my mind, was the most unexpected and exciting film booking to hit town last year, Sonatine (which surely belongs on the short list of great gangster flicks, with the likes of John Boorman’s Point Blank and Martin Scorsese’s Goodfellas) played for a couple of weeks at Ajay Theatres’ Hollywood 20.

Fireworks wasn’t privileged with a big-screen showing here, but it’s now available on video from New Yorker. The visual style and emotional content of Fireworks is better captured by its Japanese title, Hana-Bi. This Japanese word for fireworks is literally a combination of the words flower (hana) and fire (bi), which points more directly to the film’s tense juxtaposition of contemplation and violence, tenderness and anger.

Kitano is a commercial force in Japan who directs, writes, edits, and stars in his films. Think of him (roughly) as an artier, Japanese Clint Eastwood. In Fireworks, Kitano plays a police detective named Nishi who has lost a daughter to leukemia and whose wife is now dying of the same disease. At the same time, he and his partner, Horibe, along with a couple of younger detectives, are pursuing a young yakuza involved in an unspecified massacre. These two sides of Nishi’s life collide when Horibe is shot by the young yakuza and paralyzed while taking Nishi’s place in a stakeout so Nishi can visit his wife at the hospital. The violent confrontation that comes when Nishi and the two young detectives confront the yakuza who shot Horibe is the fulcrum of the film, but this confrontation is revealed only gradually.

Kitano’s exquisite, elliptical editing purposefully complicates the narrative flow of the film. Fireworks flashes forward from the moment when Nishi learns of Horibe’s shooting to a future time when Nishi has left the police force and is himself involved with the yakuza. Kitano then circles back repeatedly to the confrontation, each time adding a bit more detail, until the full extent of the carnage is revealed. Unlike so many Hollywood action movies, violence in Fireworks has a very real effect on the film’s characters. Fireworks is a calm film regularly jolted by startling eruptions of non-cathartic violence, and the film’s central acts of violence change Horibe and Nishi forever. The wheelchair-bound Horibe is abandoned by his wife and daughter and spends his days living by the sea, turning out gorgeous pointillist paintings (actually done by Kitano) that seem to reflect both his and Nishi’s familial loss. Horibe’s hobby is financially supported by Nishi through a one-time bank robbery that also allows him to pay off his yakuza debts and take his incurable wife on a final country trip.

Fireworks is perhaps most notable for its intercutting of yakuza mayhem with an achingly tender portrait of marriage. Nishi and his wife barely speak during this trip from snow-capped Mt. Fuji to the Japanese seashore, and barely need to. The unspoken intimacy Nishi shares with his wife contrasts with the sudden brutality that manifests itself in his dealings with the criminals who killed one of his partners and crippled another. The film is perhaps at its most moving when these two sides of Nishi come together, as in the beachfront scene when a passerby mocks Nishi’s wife for watering dead flowers (a striking metaphor in itself of the couple’s trip), and is then unmercifully beaten by Nishi.

But Kitano also makes room for humor in this combination of tough and tender. A television comedian before he ever made films, Kitano punctuates Fireworks with inspired bits of slapstick. As a laconic action hero, Kitano conjures American actors like Robert Mitchum and Lee Marvin, but his combination of expert physical comedy and a stoic, impassive demeanor is descended from none other than Buster Keaton.

The Village Voice proclaimed Fireworks the best film of 1998, and, since personal faves The Sweet Hereafter and Fast, Cheap and Out of Control are technically 1997 releases, I’d be hard-pressed to disagree. Here’s hoping local video stores pick it up, but if not, Fireworks can be ordered from New Yorker at 212-247-6110.

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