Kitano on the Edge

Sunlight and Shadow in Two Films by Takeshi Kitano


Hanabi is the Japanese word for fireworks. Insert a hyphen, and you break the word into its component parts: flower and fire. In the translation into English, of course, you lose that subtlety, and all you’re left with is Fireworks. That’s a shame, because while Fireworks may evoke the image of guns blazing, it misses the duality that Kitano explores.

On the one hand, Hana-bi is violent enough to turn your stomach. On the other, it’s one of the most searching, guileless explorations of devotion and grief in recent film history. The whiplash transitions from the one mode into the other may seem like a gimmick, but they’re illuminating a character who demonstrates his love for one person through the violence he commits against many others.


Billed as “Beat” Takeshi, director Takeshi Kitano stars as Nishi, a cop whose daughter died of leukemia and whose wife, Miyuki, is slowly succumbing. His face is stony and impassive, a Kitano trademark that was apparently amplified by damage he sustained in a 1994 motorcycle accident. While Nishi’s visiting his wife in the hospital, his partner Horibe is shot and crippled. Horibe’s wife and children leave him; faced with nothing but loneliness in his future, Horibe purchases a beret and takes up painting.

Alongside those two story threads is another sort of sub-thread having to do with the death of another policeman, Tanaka, in a gunfight. The exact circumstances of the killing are revealed to us only in flashback, and only a little bit at a time, but they seem to have had a profoundly scarring effect on Nishi, who decides to effectively drop out of the police force in favor of sharing his wife’s last days with her. In order to finance the vacation, he becomes a criminal himself. And what’s more, he’s deep in debt to yakuza loan sharks, who pursue him relentlessly.

So much noise and turmoil in this film, and yet it’s regularly drowned out by extended moments of ineffable beauty. Long, wordless stretches of film highlight Horibe’s beautiful yet disquieting paintings (actually created by Kitano) of animals with flowers for heads. Nishi’s escape with Miyuki to the Japanese countryside includes Mount Fuji as a breathtaking backdrop and winds up at the sea, that handy metaphor for all the possibilities of eternity.

Along the way, Nishi hurts a lot of people. So focused is he on the experience at hand, on the here-and-now urgency of taking care of his beloved wife, that he deals with any threat to the serenity of that experience with the back of his hand, the muzzle of his gun, or a well-placed pair of chopsticks. It’s over the top, but it’s rich in meaning — a cautionary tragedy.


Kitano’s previous Sonatine is perhaps less finely honed than Hana-bi, but makes use of the same dramatic juxtapositions. Sonatine‘s spellbinding midsection, during which a troupe of gangsters goes into hiding at a beach house on a deserted shore, is bookended by depictions of super-heated gunfights, including the ambush that drives them into exile. These action scenes are stylized to the hilt, more Clint Eastwood than John Woo — Kitano pumps copious heat from his pistol, but his face remains absolutely impassive. When a victim is hung from a crane and dunked repeatedly under water, his death comes as if by accident, with a deadpan Kitano and his boys speculating on how long a man can hold his breath. This is the face of a man who’s been deadened by his grim profession.

Sonatine‘s beach scenes, then, are all the more poignant as Kitano allows his gangster demeanor to crack and then fall away. The thugs laugh, dash around, play childish games with one another. Kitano exhibits a rather morbid sense of fun, but is markedly relaxed, eventually allowing himself the luxury of falling in love with a beautiful stranger with a thing for gunmen. But the world they create for themselves still vibrates with our certainty that, because this is a gangster film and because there’s unfinished business in the larger world outside of this beach resort, Kitano will eventually be pulled away from this happiness, back into the business of killing.

Takeshi Kitano
Takeshi Kitano

Of course it happens, impressively and sadly. Compare the journey taken by Kitano’s character to the “character arc” on exhibit in a typical American action film. Both Sonatine and Hana-bi identify the defining events in an aging gunman’s life, and show the transformations that ensue. Sonatine is the story of a businessman trading in violence whose world is shattered by the realization of how much more full life can be when you allow it to be empty. And Hana-bi is a sharp, uncompromised study of a man whose love for his dying wife manifests itself by rubbing out everything that threatens to intrude on that relationship. Brutal? Sure. Also invested with an instinctive humor, sensitivity and gravity that puts the action output of today’s Hollywood to shame.

Wild Things

Neve Campbell and Denise Richards in Wild Things

I’ll say this first: Wild Things has the best courtroom scene in recent memory. Matt Dillon’s upstanding high school guidance counselor has been accused of rape by a student of questionable moral standing. The trial builds to a head as a witness cracks under cross examination, and someone in the peanut gallery starts screaming and throwing things. In a cultural miasma populated by Monica Lewinsky, Jerry Springer, and Court TV, the superbly timed invocation of the ultimate 90s epithet (“You skanky bitch!”) is pure pop effervescence.

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The Big Lebowski


2008 author’s note: Looking back on this review 10 years after I wrote it, I was struck by two things. First, it’s funny to see how much time I was spending trying to work through my ambivalent feelings about the Coens — it seems to come down in part to a performance style that I find grating. Second, I gave this thing a B+? Man, I used to be a hard-ass.

In Jeff Bridges, the Coens have finally found a performer whose offhand presence is a perfect foil for their own loping eccentricity. As one Jeffrey Lebowski, Bridges conjures up the laid-back California counterpart to the uptight shock jock he played in The Fisher King. More solipsist than narcissist this time around, Lebowski is a casual ne’erdowell who describes himself in the mythic third person as “the Dude.”

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Paul Newman and Susan Sarandon in Twilight

In the opening scenes of Twilight, 21-year-old Reese Witherspoon appears topless. It may seem gratuitous, but I like to think it’s really a subtle way of taunting the 72-year-old Paul Newman, a private investigator who confronts the nude Witherspoon with the aim of whisking her back to her parents. If Witherspoon’s nubile body is a reminder of Newman’s status as a geezer, what follows is an insult to his virility — the girl gets hold of his gun and shoots him in the thigh. And maybe she hits something more important than his thigh. For the rest of the movie, other characters eye him with sympathy. “We heard about what happened in Mexico,” he’s told when he asks why he’s being treated with kid gloves.

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Great Expectations

Gwyneth Paltrow nude in Great Expectations

Magical or hokey, depending on your point of view, Alfonso Cuarón’s new version of Great Expectations is another reinvented classic for the age of MTV. Of course, this version bears little resemblance to the original Dickens. Even some of the names have been changed. God help me, I kind of enjoyed it despite its failings, although I certainly wouldn’t recommend it.

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Fallen Angels / Happy Together

Rhapsodies at the End of the World


Hyped by its admirers as just about the greatest thing since, well, Godard, Wong Kar-Wai’s Fallen Angels is a little too haunted by the ghost of Chungking Express for me.

Now, I loved Chungking Express, two whacked-out, indescribable not-quite-romances that conveyed the uneasy thrill of a whacked-out, once-in-a-lifetime pas de deux with someone you have no business pining after. Together, they offer a glimpse of something akin to but other than everday life, a timeless Hong Kong fantasia. Photographed in painterly swashes of color and light, Chungking Express is the escapist’s perfect real world fantasy. It’s also an inspired visual tour de force, exhilarating proof that at one hundred years of age, the cinema still hasn’t given up all of its secrets.

So it’s entirely possible that Fallen Angels pisses me off a little by proving that Chungking Express wasn’t entirely the one-off masterpiece that I considered it. Christopher Doyle, D.P. extraordinaire, recreates the gorgeous, smeared-color photography that so distinguished Chungking Express and Wong’s epic Ashes of Time. Takeshi Kaneshiro is back, as a mute delinquent who breaks into shops after hours and intimidates customers into giving him money. Sobbing on Kaneshiro’s shoulder is Charlie Yeung, who has been jilted over a girl called “Blondie.” Leon Lai plays a supercool, sunglassed hit man, and Michele Reis his never-present partner, who obsesses over him from a distance. Karen Mong is Baby, a forcefully sexy moll in an orange wig who seduces the hired gun. Like Chungking Express, the film tells two separate stories that intersect only briefly over the course of the narrative.

There’s a lot of great, audacious stuff in Fallen Angels — like a bizarre gunfight set to a loping hip-hop tune, and what might be the most incisive masturbation scene in cinema history, played against Laurie Anderson’s “Speak My Language.” There’s a lovely meditation on our fascination with home video cameras and the cockeyed warmth of family. There’s also an echo of the Chungking Express scenario that had a clerk pining after the obscure object of her desire by investigating and rearranging his apartment during the workday. (Chungking Express reimagined voyeurism by flipping its conceptual axes — instead of watching his actions from a safe distance, Faye Wong admires Tony Leung by occupying the same space he does, but at a different point in time.) In all, though, I think Fallen Angels is a bit overwritten, and a little too concerned with knowing exactly where it’s going. A disappointment, but a fascinating, spiky, outrageously gorgeous one. Go figure.

Meanwhile, Wong’s 1997 Happy Together, which was shot after Fallen Angels but made it to U.S. theaters first, sneaks up on you. The storyline is awfully slight — two lovers who fled Hong Kong for a more ostensibly romantic South American locale wind up bickering their way around Buenos Aires and feeding their own loneliness and alienation. The difference is that Leslie Cheung and Tony Leung, two of Hong Kong’s biggest male stars, are the couple. Like a John Woo movie (and, some would say, more to the point) that uses balletic violence as a shorthand for intense emotional feeling, Happy Together uses gay sex to establish an intense emotional attachment in a refreshingly frank way. Once the big sex scene is out of the way, the story is free to develop on its own rambling trajectory.

There’s evidence that the film was shot with only the loosest notions of how it would turn out, and the first work print was reportedly three hours long. Once again, Doyle comes through with images of staggering beauty, including a breathtaking overhead shot of the Iguaca Falls. Throughout Happy Together, the Falls is a symbol of the serenity that eludes Ho Po-Wing and Lai Yiu-Fai — they figured that it would be the first of many landmarks to be visited in their new life together in this foreign land, but somehow they never found the time. Represented by a kitschy decorated lamp in Lai Yiu-Fai’s apartment, it mocks his failed effort to find happiness.

Happy Together extrapolates this miserable little relationship — which is debauched by harsh words and infidelity — to signify a dangerous propensity lurking inside all of us. Is this one at all unlike or more notable than any millions of miserable little relationships in other cities around the world? A secondary character ventures to Tierra del Fuego, the southernmost tip of the Americas, and the camera spins around his perch at this lighthouse at the end of the world. Of course this story is the world’s story, and of course it must take us to the very end of the earth, on the assumption that being there, in the most solitary of places, somehow has meaning in itself. It’s a simple thing, but a demonstration of the power of shooting on location — dialogue and image combine to give a very real sense of place.

In the film’s very final moments, when the feelings of loss and longing are achingly complete, Wong Kar-Wai sticks it to us with a Chinese version of the old Turtles song “Happy Together,” which feels both ironic and, astonishingly, full of hope at the end of a hopeless story. This light touch — is he daring us to sing along? — is crucial to the final effect of a film that could otherwise be too dreary to bear. Happy Together discovers meaning almost by tripping over it, while the more carefully considered Fallen Angels seeks meaning out and pins it down like a butterfly on cork, where all its beautiful multiplicities can be admired. They’re both important films, but I prefer the one that’s the least structured and simplest.

Even in Hong Kong and especially in Hollywood, I don’t think there’s anyone else making movies that are anything like these (Wim Wenders probably comes closest, both stylistically and in terms of his dreamy disregard for conventional structure). They recall nothing so much as the French New Wave, but they’re unmistakably among the first products of a truly new sensibility. Once again negating pessimism and defying the lethargy that afflicts too much of international cinema, Wong Kar-Wai’s pre-millennial rhapsodies are giving this cinephile new hope that it’s not the end of the world, after all.

Written and directed by Wong Kar-Wai
Cinematography by Christopher Doyle
Edited by William Chang
Starring Leon Lai, Michelle Reis, Takeshi Kaneshiro, Charlie Yeung, and Karen Mok
Hong Kong, 1995

Written and directed by Wong Kar-Wai
Cinematography by Christopher Doyle
Edited by William Chang and Ming Lam Wong
Starring Leslie Cheung, Tony Leung Chiu Wai, and Chang Chen
Hong Kong, 1997


Jean Reno and Natalie Portman in Leon

Whatever you do, don’t mistake Leon for a crime drama. It’s not, despite first appearances to the contrary. It’s not even much of an action movie, although the action that is here is exemplary.

So if this story of a hit man isn’t really a crime drama and isn’t really an action film, then what is it? You could describe it as Lolita reimagined as a film noir, but you’d be wrong. There’s a searching tenderness here that Nabokov — and noir — would likely deny. You could say it’s a parable of the destruction and reinvention of the “nuclear family,” but you’d be missing the vertiginous European spin it puts on its American milieu (this is a Hollywood-financed movie from a French director, after all). Finally, you could call it a fairy tale, and there you might be closest to the mark. Whatever else it may be, Leon is a fable about the violence of growing up.

Leon himself (Jean Reno) is a hit man of European origin who works in New York City, describing himself as a “cleaner.” (You may recognize the term from director Luc Besson’s previous La Femme Nikita, which featured Reno as “Victor the cleaner”) Even so, he’s a hit man with principles — no women, no kids. So when 12-year-old Matilda (Natalie Portman, in a decisively magnetic screen debut) returns to her apartment building with a bag of groceries and knocks on Leon’s door instead of her own, he can’t bring himself to leave her out in the corridor. You see, a gang of thugs led by a weirdo DEA agent named Ben (a very corrupt Gary Oldman) has executed Matilda’s family in cold blood (yes, it’s that kind of movie — her father is apparently a middleman for drug runners) and hasn’t yet realized that she’s missing.

Leon makes it clear that Matilda isn’t welcome to stay, and she immediately starts looking for a way to insinuate herself into his life. Primarily, she needs someplace to hide as Ben and his goons search for the missing girl. Ideally, she’d like to use a wad of cash she recovers from the apartment to pay Leon to hunt down and kill her family’s murderers. She cares not one whit for her parents and older sister, who were portrayed in earlier scenes as nightmarish caricatures of an urban family, but wants the death of her little brother avenged. Leon refuses, but in the course of conversation and negotiation these two characters edge ever closer to one another.

Finally, Matilda convinces Leon to train her to become a cleaner. If the film’s frank awareness of her incipient sexuality makes some viewers uncomfortable, her character’s disposition toward premeditated violence may turn off even more of them. The subtext here is that Matilda is a girl with ineffectual parents and insensitive educators who has probably learned most of what she knows of the world from television. (More specifically, she seems familiar with a European idea of American pop culture — in one comic scene, she plays charades with Leon, acting out Madonna, Marilyn Monroe, and Charlie Chaplin to exactly zero recognition.) Her canny coquettishness and relative ease with guns and violence only illustrate her conversance with entertainment icons. Leon, meanwhile, is in many ways Matilda’s opposite. He’s preternaturally adept with his arsenal, but he cannot read or write. He’s a stone-faced killing machine when he’s on a job, but he’s childlike and vulnerable when he’s spending time with Matilda. The relationship between the two of them grows into something that neither of them fully understands, perched somewhere between familial affection and erotic love. If such a notion sounds distasteful, all I can recommend is that you see the movie, which is to my eyes neither lurid nor exploitative.

On my recent re-viewing of the picture I was surprised at how little gunfire is actually involved in Leon. Certainly my memories of the movie’s two fiercest set pieces led me to chalk this up as one of the finer action movies of the last decade, and Besson does direct those scenes with the stylistic touches of a virtuoso. But the main reason that the film packs such a wallop is that it’s restrained in many ways, taking time to develop its characters to some sort of fruition. In the face of critical kvetching about the over-the-top sensibilities of this or that soulless big-budget action movie, Leon stands as a relatively pastoral lesson in how to develop a story and milk little bursts of violence for maximum impact.

Despite Besson’s mastery of technique, Leon‘s success is due in large part to its elegant performances. While I do wish Oldman had played his character a little more straight, I also recognize that you don’t hire Oldman if you don’t want to go over the top. But as Leon, Reno is both powerful and frail, convincingly portraying a hardened but needy tough guy of almost infinite sensitivity. Natalie Portman’s performance is all the more impressive for being her debut. While her delivery doesn’t always seem fresh or spontaneous, it is singleminded and rich in enthusiasm. Screen debuts this compelling are rare; truly charismatic performances from actors so young are rarer still. (For my money, Portman puts the grossly mannered performances of Kirsten Dunst in Interview With the Vampire and Anna Paquin in The Piano to shame.) Danny Aiello has a nice turn as an insidious father figure who is, um, taking care of Leon’s finances.

Leon was originally released in the U.S. under the title The Professional, with more than 20 minutes shorn from Besson’s preferred cut — mostly from the midsection — after the film tested poorly. The response from American critics was decidedly mixed, although many regarded it cooly, as a hollow exercise in wanton stylistics. Some viewers noted their discomfort with the sexuality of Matilda, or with the matter-of-fact nature of the violence. Some of the complaints and questions about the film are finally answered by the release of Besson’s “Version Integrale,” with those edited sequences restored. Among the restorations: an even more stylized approach to violence in wry scenes featuring Leon making his rounds with Matilda in tow as a trainee; a scene in which Matilda puts a gun to her head and makes a play for Leon’s attention (Russian Roulette is, apparently, an emotional language that he understands); a backstory explaining the previously ambiguous circumstances that led Leon to America; and finally, a bit of dialogue wherein Matilda actually propositions her mentor (Leon declines).

This version of the film has not been released to U.S. theaters, and with just $32 million in domestic grosses, it seems unlikely that Columbia will re-release it here. But the so-called Leon: Version Integrale played in theaters worldwide, and has begun drifting into the U.S. as a Japanese laserdisc and on bootleg videotapes. The laserdisc is a terrific transfer, with most of the Japanese subtitles appearing in the black space underneath the letterboxed image. Leon is not a film that gains tremendously in its widescreen version, but the restored sequences do make a difference. This “director’s cut” is highly recommended to fans of Besson’s work.



As I sit down to write, I’m trying to remember the last movie that actually frightened me. Maybe it was Jurassic Park, ancient critters all agrowl with hunger, or The Fugitive, when shots fired from Tommy Lee Jones’ gun threatened to send me through the ceiling. Wasn’t the suffocating dread of the final scenes of Heavenly Creatures a kind of terror? What about the teasing not-quite-presence of the killer in the first half of Se7en, or the shroud of pessimism draped across that film’s final scenes? And I’m not sure I’ve ever wanted out of a movie theater as badly as I did when that damn baby dropped off the ceiling in Trainspotting.

These are among the movie memories that I cherish most, for a number of reasons. First, there’s the sheer visceral pleasure of a mild adrenaline rush, of a physical reaction to a movie that sets your heart pounding and for a few moments both erases your awareness of this thing called “the movies” and enhances your experience of it. And then there’s the intellectual pleasure of going back and rolling the film all over again in the theater of your mind, trying to remember which scene it was that set you reeling, and perhaps wondering why you reacted that way.

As budgets get bigger, presumably to encompass an audience’s ever-growing hunger for more spectacular special effects, it seems that suspense gets smaller. Who needs suspense when you’ve got a big digital tornado throwing cows and semis across the screen? At least Twister had a sense of humor, and reverence for the awe-inspiring power of what it was trying to recreate. But Independence Day, for instance, scuttled its own showcase scenes by intercutting the jaw-dropping annihilation of Manhattan — which gave me chills in the ID4 trailers — with dumb and dumber fillips, like the flamingly gay Harvey Fierstein on the phone with his mom, or Vivica Fox saving her pooch from a firestorm. Cue laughter and applause, respectively, in the wake of the world’s first feel-good mass murder sequence.

My point? More movies like Breakdown, please. Simply put, this is a terrifying movie that presses the right buttons early on and then capitalizes on your vulnerability. Having seen the “yeah, right” theatrical trailer, which efficiently telegraphs Breakdown‘s set-up, I was ready to give it a miss until all the kind reviews came out. And that’s why I read critics — Breakdown is a veritable object lesson in how to take a tired, unlikely retread of a “high concept” and drive it into white-knuckle territory.

By casting the likable Kurt Russell as Jeff Taylor and then, most importantly, sticking with him throughout the course of the narrative, writer/director Jonathan Mostow first invites us into Jeff’s rather mundane world and then strings us along as the walls of safety built up around his life collapse. Jeff and his wife, Amy (Kathleen Quinlan), have pulled up roots in Massachusetts to move cross-country. After some small talk and an ominous run-in with a scuzzy redneck, the couple find themselves in trouble when their Jeep breaks down in the Utah desert. As it does in Spielberg’s Duel, evil arrives in the guise of a big truck. This truck has a face, though, and it’s that of an amiable trucker named Red (J.T. Walsh) who agrees to give Amy a lift to the nearest pay phone while Jeff stays with the car.

Now, it’s easy to wonder why in the world Jeff would let his wife ride off with a total stranger, but the challenge of Breakdown is naturally to imagine yourself in that selfsame situation. Far from home and friendless, even the most independent-minded fella has to place his trust somewhere he’d rather not have to place it. And only in the movies would we suspect that a professional trucker would moonlight as a body snatcher. But Amy disappears, never turning up at Belle’s Diner, where she’s supposed to rendezvous with Jeff. The customers have never seen her. And when Jeff chases down Red’s rig, Amy is nowhere to be found. Worse, Red claims that he’s never seen Jeff before in his life.

What ensues is an outlandish but deliberately paced and wholly involving thriller. It takes place in the haunted emptiness of the American West, and is appropriately shot in (non-anamorphic) widescreen. The percussive score by Basil Poledouris sets an edgy mood. Film editing is key to impact, making the most of plot twists and chase scenes. Also critical is Russell’s performance as a fish out of water, removed physically, mentally and emotionally from the reassuring trappings of civilization. The performances are uniformly excellent, as well they must be to fend off undue scrutiny of the story. When Jeff flags down a cop on the highway, he behaves pretty much exactly as we’d expect a cop to behave. Or is the cop in on the conspiracy? For that matter, is the surly owner of Belle’s in cahoots with the unseen villains? Then again, Walsh’s denial of culpability seems so genuine that we may start to wonder whether Jeff is nuts ourselves. Only Quinlan seems unusually flat and uninvolved, and she vanishes early on (an Oscar nominee, and all her agent can get her is this thankless role?).

Of course, this is a Hollywood film circa 1997, so for all its craft, Breakdown still plays nice with the audience. There’s an offhanded remark that suggests some nastiness may befall Amy, but the movie’s free of any rough stuff. Mostly it’s riveting in the manner of a Hitchcock film — high praise, indeed.

Too bad it never plumbs the psychological depths of a Hitchcock film, or makes the same terrible sense, but that’s just not part of the game plan. Instead of character development, we get a single barely-drawn character stuck in a vice grip. Next, we watch for a little more than 90 minutes as the screw is tightened and the gas pedal nears the floorboard. Only in one scene, as Jeff visits a small-town bank, does Breakdown waste its time. Elsewhere, pulse-pounding set pieces follow on the heels of plot twists, transformed characters, and other novel ideas. Some of the best come near the climax, when Jeff turns the tables by invading someone else’s privacy. In particular, the homestead where some of this action is staged reminded me oddly of another scary movie about American opportunists called The Texas Chain Saw Massacre.

Which brings me back to movies that scare me, and how they manage it. In its own way, Breakdown is a direct descendant of the horror movie. Like Texas Chain Saw, Breakdown postulates the existence of a frightening sort of down-home subculture that subsists by feeding on the meat of hapless travelers. It shares with some of the more interesting modern horror films (Bernard Rose’s Candyman, Wes Craven’s The People Under the Stairs) a subtext about class differences, and the resentment that brews in the lower class when the better off breeze through their lives. Money — how much things cost, how much you’ve got in the bank — is an undercurrent. And even more shamelessly than those scary movies, Breakdown taps the timeliest fears of our era, gleefully and perhaps cynically demonstrating what happens when we find out that our $30,000 sport utility vehicle isn’t enough to protect us from all the elements.