FIREWORKS

Directed and written by Takeshi Kitano

Starring Takeshi, Kayoko Kishimoto and Ren Osugi

Distributed by Milestone Films

***1/2

This review will be published in NYU FILM REVIEW.

Robert Bresson once said that "There is a nice quote from Leonardo da Vinci, which goes something like this: 'Think about the surface of the work. Above all think about the surface.' "This manifesto does a pretty good job of summarizing the films of Japanese director Takeshi Kitano. In his work, surface is everything. His screenplays shun psychology and downplay backstory, and he directs actors, especially himself, to show little emotion. But the films aren't shallow, nor are their characters affectless. They just don't give their secrets away easily.

Since his 1989 directorial debut, VIOLENT COP, Takeshi's made six other films: BOILING POINT (1990), A SCENE AT THE SEA (1991), SONATINE (1993), GETTING ANY? (1995), KIDS RETURN (1996) and FIREWORKS (1997). VIOLENT COP, BOILING POINT and KIDS RETURN have had some exposure at American festivals, but FIREWORKS is the first of these films to be released in the U.S. (Miramax has owned the rights to SONATINE for several years, but they've been reluctant to actually let it off the shelf. It will finally be released in April.) These films are only the tip of the iceberg. Takeshi also paints, appears on 7 Japanese TV programs a week, acts in other people's films (most memorably in Nagisa Oshima's MERRY CHRISTMAS, MR. LAWRENCE) and writes weekly columns for 6 magazines. In the midst of all this work, he somehow found the time to write 55 books (sample titles: THAT IS WHY PEOPLE HATE ME, NO RESPECT FILM THEORY and POLITICAL SPEECHES THAT WILL MAKE YOU LOSE) and record 7 albums. One event in his personal life seems especially significant to FIREWORKS. He almost died in a 1994 motorcycle accident, which left the right side of his face partially paralyzed. It took 7 months of rehabilitation before he could return to his TV and film work, and the after-effects of the accident are still quite visible.

Initially, FIREWORKS is a hallucinatory, disorienting experience. Takeshi eschews establishing shots, often prefers to cut images and sound in the most abrasive manner possible and scrambles much of the chronology. The film centers around Nishi, played by Takeshi himself, an ex-cop who's ruined himself by going in debt to yakuza loan sharks. Although Nishi is a thug, capable of gouging out a man's eye with a chopstick on a second's notice, he's capable of enormous tenderness towards his paraplegic friend, Horibe (Ren Osugi), and his dying wife (Kayoko Kishimoto). His debts were amassed through spending an enormous amount on art supplies for Horibe. The two men have been friends since junior high school and were partners on the police force. Since Nishi was visiting his wife in the hospital at the time Horibe was paralyzed in a shoot-out, he blames himself. Nishi decides to solve his debt by robbing a bank; meanwhile, he also spends his time distracting his wife by playing games with her.

FIREWORKS is the English translation of the Japanese word "Hana-bi." However, the word could be literally translated as "fire-flower," since it consists of those two characters s. This juxtaposition is crucial to the meaning of FIREWORKS. Were Miramax also distributing it, they would probably promote it with 2 different trailers: one promising an ultra-violent gangster film, the other a gentle love story, full of colorful art, flowers and scenery. Both would be equally (in)accurate. In someone else's hands, it could have turned into a sappy melodrama or an empty exercise in stylish gore. Instead, Takeshi uses elements of genre like a hip-hop DJ, creating something new out of disparate fragments. The melodrama is stripped-down and rigorous, and the brutality of the violence never detracts from the seriousness of the film's exploration of mortality. When it played the New York Film Festival, critic J. Hoberman compared it to a cross between Ozu and Don Siegel. (I'd add Bresson, Buster Keaton and Jean-Pierre Melville.) On paper, that synthesis seems off-putting, as contradictory and bizarre as Takeshi's paintings of flower-headed people and animals. On film, it takes off like a Roman candle.

Over the past few years, too many American films (and filmmakers) have gotten lost in a hall of mirrors, obsessed with genre and images of the past but unable to connect with the world outside the screen. FIREWORKS shares some of these obsessions, but it uses them as a starting point, not a destination. The days of the three-dimensional character may be behind us; its loss is evident in "art films" like SAFE, CRASH or GOODBYE SOUTH, GOODBYE and blockbusters alike. Rather than lamenting this loss, Takeshi adopts a dreamlike, weightless tone that feels oddly appropriate for approaching the most ambitious, serious subject matter. FIREWORKS is filled with images of cruelty and death, but its inventiveness is more life-affirming than a thousand feelgood movies.