I wasn’t wild about the idea of a Kitano (“Beat”) Takeshi film given its reputation for over-the-top violence, but Hana-Bi is one of several flicks by him – “by” in a big sense, meaning directed, written and starring – that are widely considered modern classics, especially overseas. So I figured it was about time to check it out.
A detective (Kitano) whose wife is dying of cancer is relieved on a stakeout by a pal. The replacement cop ends up shot and paralyzed while another is killed. Kitano, wracked by guilt, quits the force. He gets money by borrowing from the mob and robbing a bank, using the cash to pay for art supplies for his paralyzed friend (who has been deserted by his wife and child), support the wife of the policeman who died, and take his wife on a long final voyage.
That plot sounds simpler than it is. The story is doled out in bits and pieces, much like the pointillist pictures that the paralyzed man draws throughout the film (there’s a metaphor in there somewhere, I’m sure), and comes together only gradually over the course of the film. Kitano says very little throughout the film, including entire scenes where he is completely silent. Dialogue among the other characters is blunt and only as much as necessary, with very little small talk. That pretty much applies to the violence as well: what’s there is only as much as necessary to the plot and no more, such as the vicious killing or maiming of mob members as they variously try to get their money from Kitano. When Kitano hits or stabs or shoots someone, which he does often, it’s over in a flash – the moment is established, then it’s gone with no dramatic flourishes or fireworks. It’s like an anti-action action film.
That coincides with the detective’s real mission: to take his wife on one last extended trip before her death. Their near-silent travels along country and ocean roads, which were filled with plenty of sweetly humorous moments, reminded me of those scenes in Bunraku puppet theater pieces where the characters travel to their deaths, especially those in double-suicide plays. To the end, they never actually say “I love you”, but the emotion is all the more moving for being unspoken. In fact, she doesn’t speak at all until the very end of the film, her only words being an apology – just 2-3 words, but we understand that as her gratitude to him for taking such good care of her in her final days. He simply smiles. That is a beautiful moment. All the scattered images throughout the movie really come together in that late scene.
The characters were all well drawn, if a bit exaggerated in some cases. There was a lot of shouting and anger, especially among the men, which became wearing. Also, I wasn’t quite convinced that the crippled guy’s wife and child would run out on him just for his injury; something seemed missing there. Still, once that is established, his loneliness is all the more effective for its lack of sentimentality, his feelings expressed through those curious pictures he drew, like the animals and people with flowers for faces (painted apparently by Kitano himself). As for Kitano’s character, his stoic expression and long silences disguised what was obviously a great depth of feeling for his wife and his mates. It was a quirky and impressive portrayal.
I’m not sure I actually liked this film, but it was different and certainly kept me watching, especially as the pieces started coming together about 30 minutes into it. Kitano clearly was going to make the kind of movie he wanted without worrying unduly about commercial success. Not for everyone, but well worth a watch.