BOILING POINT

Directed and written by Takeshi Kitano

With Takeshi, Masahiko Ono, Minoru Iizuka and Hisashi Igawa

Distributed by WinStar Cinema

***

Opens in New York on November 19th, although already available on video.


With only a little less than 7 weeks left in the 90s, distributors have finally started taking hints from FILM COMMENT's 1997 poll about the best undistributed films of the 90s. Mohsen Makhmalbaf's 1996 A MOMENT OF INNOCENCE opens this week, with Michaelangelo Antonioni's BEYOND THE CLOUDS and Abbas Kiarostami's CLOSE-UP coming next month. (In fact, CLOSE-UP will open on the final day of the 90s!) It's often been difficult for an American spectator to understand the context behind individual films by directors like Makhmalbaf or Kitano, since we've usually had to watch their oeuvre in a piece-meal fashion. In Makhmalbaf's case, the task was made easier by a 1997 traveling retrospective and the release of 3 of his films on video by Facets, but Kitano's work hasn't always been easy to come by. His third film, A SCENE AT THE SEA, tops my list of films I can't wait to have a chance to see, but although some critics consider it his best film, it's only played New York - at a sold-out Japan Society screening - once. BOILING POINT is the fourth Kitano film to be released in the U.S., following FIREWORKS, the 1993 SONATINE (released in 1998), the 1989 VIOLENT COP (released earlier this year) and preceding his latest, KIKUJIRO (which comes out next February), so it's an odd experience to have the chance to watch his early work only after seeing the later, more mature films.

Masaki (Ono) works for a gas station and aspires to play for the Eagles, a minor-league baseball team. The rest of the Eagles barely tolerate his presence; although desperate to join in, he's such a bad ball player that he loses the game for them when given a rare chance to step up to the plate. At work, he gets beaten up by a local gangster and decides to take revenge, joining up with Uehara (Kitano), an impulsively brutal ex-yakuza.

Without being any less brutal than VIOLENT COP, BOILING POINT marks the beginning of Kitano's maturation. For all its beatings and shoot-outs, it's also full of cryptic beauty and an odd calm. (Some of its most memorable images, like the shot of him wearing a crown of flowers, have as much poetic force as his paintings, shown in FIREWORKS.) HANA-BI, the Japanese title of FIREWORKS, translates literally as "fire-flower," and that film, BOILING POINT and SONATINE all revolve around the dialectic embodied in that word. (By having Uehara hide a machine gun inside a flower bouquet, BOILING POINT makes the metaphor literal.) In these films, a game is never just a game: it's also a means to keep death at bay. However, BOILING POINT is about sports, as well as games, and both the baseball and yakuza culture it describes are full of rituals and hierarchies that Masaki can't learn well enough to "play the game".

If Shohei Imamura's 1979 serial killer saga VENGEANCE IS MINE could be described as the story of a man who kills because he can't say no, BOILING POINT is the story of a boy who kills because he wants to say yes to a question no one wants him to answer. He finds a sort of solution -by hooking up with Uehara. As a sociopath who rapes his male underling and slaps his girlfriend around as casually as if he were taking a walk on the beach, Kitano makes an indelible impression in relatively little screen time. Almost everyone else in the film acts much like him - faces reduced to an affectless mask, bodies frozen in stylized postures - but only he can construct something expressive out of this surface, which almost seems to parody Western notions of Japanese "inscrutability" and emotional reserve.

Although BOILING POINT is far more linear - both temporally and tonally - than FIREWORKS, it's still disorienting enough to leave me baffled about what exactly Kitano thinks of Masaki (not to mention what I think of him). Unfortunately, his treatment of some of the other characters is crueler. Uehara's long-suffering girlfriend is a giggling bimbo, even dumber than Masaki, and while it may be a stretch to suggest that the film condones Uehara's violent abuse of her, it certainly doesn't treat her any more kindly than he does. Even in a world without three-dimensional characters, she's 1-D. The downside of Kitano's willingness to play mix'n'match with all sorts of received wisdom about genre, character and form is his tendency to throw volatile material onscreen with no overt indication of a moral stance, which leads to the kind of heartlessness on display in much of VIOLENT COP and BOILING POINT. Without kowtowing to conventional humanism, FIREWORKS reaches further by exploring the roots of bad behavior in good intentions and contrasting its cop/yakuza world of macho, casual violence with the invisible, more insidious violence of illness and "natural" death. In BOILING POINT, the flower gets burned by fire, but it's probably safe to assume that in KIKUJIRO, a completely non-violent road movie in which Kitano co-stars with a young boy, the flower will prevail. The co-existence of both poles keeps his films, even at their crudest, from disintegrating into hip nihilism, or at the other end of the spectrum, from pushing their playfulness into sentimentality or prettiness for its own sake.

Hopefully, Sony Classics will promote KIKUJIRO well enough to expand Kitano's American audience even further, possibly encouraging another distributor to pick up A SCENE AT THE SEA or KIDS RETURN, a minor but interesting 1996 film. Even if VIOLENT COP and BOILING POINT are not be the equals of SONATINE and FIREWORKS, they're the first steps of a filmmaker who would blossom into one of the 90s' greatest talents, and as such, they're essential viewing.