By Stacey Richter
> IF IT'S BEEN a while since you've seen a henchmen stabbed through the eye with a Bic pen, perhaps it's time to take in a movie by Takeshi Kitano, a.k.a. Beat Takeshi, the iconoclastic celebrity director of Japan (see this week's "Media Mix" column for details). Takeshi's films are known for their slow, contemplative pace, broken occasionally by bursts of incredible violence. The effect is Peckinpah at a tea ceremony, only weirder.
Fireworks (Hana-Bi) stars Takeshi Kitano (who also writes, edits, and directs) as Nishi, a cop who weathers a hurricane of bad luck with an impassive expression that varies only according to whether his sunglasses are on or off. With all of the interest of a librarian checking out books, Nishi masterminds a bank robbery and perforates legions of loan sharks--at least, when he isn't caring for his slowly dying wife, Miyuki (Kayoko Kishimoto). Post-robbery, loaded with stolen funds, Nishi takes Miyuki on a minivan tour of the Japanese countryside, enjoying a period of happiness beneath the austere silhouette of Mount Fuji.
Takeshi's acting has led him to be called the Japanese Charles Bronson, and he dispenses kindness to his wife and retribution to bad guys with a deadpan face that's as compelling as it is frustrating to read. Though the plot occasionally grows illogical (good and bad guys track Nishi's minivan through the countryside with the ease of television crews tracking O.J.'s doomed crawl), there's something about Takeshi's blankness that seems genuine and encourages one to mentally fill in the plot holes.
Interestingly, the most powerful part of the film doesn't include Nishi at all; it's an extended subplot concerning his partner, Horibe (Ren Osugi), who after being crippled in the line of duty rehabilitates himself through painting. The strange, beautiful, and sometimes awful paintings he creates are in fact the work of Takeshi, who took up the brush himself after being seriously injured in a motorbike crash.
The visual style of Fireworks reiterates the bright bursts on plain backgrounds found in his paintings. Takeshi is a flamboyant kind of minimalist: A quiet soundtrack, static shots, and spare dialogue are combined with dizzying flashbacks and blood-soaked garments to warn us that contentment and joy may be gained, but only at great sacrifice.
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