Tuesday, February 23, 2016

Pale Flower: A Yakuza Film Beauty

by Scott Adlerberg

Funny, I've seen a couple of big films recently that I found slightly underwhelming. The Revenant was one and Quentin Tarantino's The Hateful Eight was another.  Not that I disliked either, but neither lived up to the expectations I had for them going in.  On the other hand, it's always a joy when you watch a film you never even heard of before, and it turns out to be something that sticks with you.  That's what happened with the Japanese film Pale Flower, which I saw about a month ago.

A friend called me up on a Saturday night asking whether I knew the film.  Had I seen it?  No and no, but since he was so excited about it, I became stoked to see it also.  Pale Flower, a 1964 crime film directed by Masahiro Shinoda.  Part of the Criterion Collection (always a good sign) and available for instant viewing through Hulu.  I didn't have Hulu, but after my wife and son fell asleep that night, around eleven o'clock, I said screw it, signed up for Hulu, and searched out Pale Flower.

For anyone who likes Japanese movies, for anyone who likes crime movies, for anyone who likes noir - I say, "See this movie."  It's a beauty, filmed in crystalline, widescreen black and white.  The story's pretty simple: A middle-aged yakuza named Muraki gets out of jail after serving a term of a few years and becomes involved with a seductive young woman (Saeko) who he discovers is a gambling addict. While he's an old-school kind of gangster, stoical to the core, she's an impulsive thrill seeker.  She's well-to-do and seems to be slumming it in the underworld.  He falls for her, and it seems that the life force she possesses will be something that helps him rejuvenate himself and re-adapt to the outside world. It doesn't quite work out that way; her penchant for taking chances and seeking out danger really is a full-throttled self-destructiveness, and Muraki realizes that if he stays with her, she will destroy them both.  Still, can he go back to the empty life he had before he met her?

This film has an odd mood, at once swoony and detached.  Most of the film takes place at night, on rainy streets or in gambling dens.  There's a strange car race Saeko gets them into on an empty dark highway, her only purpose, it seems, to experience yet another thrill.  Doom hangs over every frame of this movie, in true noir fashion, and besides being gorgeously shot, the film has a striking score, composed by the great Toru Takemitsu.  There is a gangster sub plot to go along with the twisted romance,  and Muraki finds himself in the middle of everything, with life-defining choices to make.  All this in about 90 minutes (How long was The Revenant?  2 hours and 36 minutes. How long was The Hateful Eight, roadshow edition?  3 hours and 7 minutes), a 90 minutes I would gladly sit through again tomorrow. 

Bleak yet somewhat dreamlike, Pale Flower is a film that has a modern feel even though it’s over 50 years old.  It doesn’t strive hard for weight; it achieves its cool existential tone through economy, pacing, and atmosphere. There is a mixture of emotion and reserve in the performances.  And obviously, if I’m talking about it now, a month after seeing it, I'd call it a film that lingers in your mind.  Anyway, I’m glad my friend turned me on to it with his phone call on a Saturday night and that I then had one of those great movie times that results when something you didn’t know about turns into something you recommend to others.

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