Thursday, September 16, 2010

NYFF 2010: Pale Flower

As I have noticed a good many of my critical compatriots do recently, I too must preface this look at the 1964 film Pale Flower, with the (quite sad) admission that I am woefully lacking in my knowledge of the films of Masahiro Shinoda.  Actually I am woefully lacking in my knowledge of most things under the banner of what one might call the Japanese New Wave (a handful of Imamura and Oshima aside, but only a handful).

That being said, my introduction to Shinoda came just yesterday with the press screening of Pale Flower (one of twelve Shinoda films playing in this year's New York Film Festival's Masterworks Series) at Walter Reade, and I must say, I was more than a little impressed.  To answer (and paraphrase a bit) John Lennon's rather absurdist question, yes Shinoda-san, you passed the audition.
Pale Flower is one of those stunning discoveries one makes that, much like Burnett's Killer of Sheep three years ago, only makes one angry that it took this long to finally discover it.  The story of Muraki, a Yakuza killer who returns to his old turf after a stint in prison, to find things pretty much the same as they ever were.  Well, everything except for Saeko, a beautiful young woman who is now a regular at one of the requisite seedy gambling dens run by the local Yakuza boss.  As reckless as she is stunning, Saeko (Mariko Kaga) quickly becomes the pivotal point in the life of Muraki and of course, as always does the femme fatale, his demise (or at least his entrapment back in the same problems as before).

Considered one of the high points of the Japanese New Wave (though still with remnants of Ozu in it) Shinoda, just like his French compatriots, took the notions and ideas of film noir and planted them inside Pale Flower.  Obviously (or at least it should be obvious) influenced by what Godard and Truffaut were doing in the West the years just prior and combined with what his own contemporaries were doing right out his own front door (Oshima, Imamura, Seijun Suzuki), the film is layered in such a way that one must assume it had some sort of rather strong influence on both Martin Scorsese, and later on, Quentin Tarantino.  Of course what filmmakers did not influence Scorsese and QT?
Now at the time, since the French and Japanese New Wave's were coming together pretty much simultaneously, one's influence on the other is just guess work (did these directors even see each other's works during this period?) but one must figure there was some sort of cross-cultural influence here, or at the very least, influences from the same places as each other.  While the French New Wave got off the ground with the determination of a bunch of upstart film critics who wanted to change the world, the Japanese New Wave was born from the studio system (which may explain the influence of Ozu hidden away in Shinoda's camera work at times) and therefore perhaps not as entrenched in film culture as their European counterparts.  Yet, there must have been some influence (that's all I'm sayin').

Enough speculating, the film stands on its own (influence-free) merits and damn well should.  My favourite scene (among many!) is Saeko's insanely giddy impromptu late night car race through the strangely deserted streets of Tokyo with a seeming stranger and the even stranger aftermath.  Cross-cultural influence or not, this is so Godard it ain't funny.  Stark and harrowing, irreverent yet stoical, Shinoda is a surprise well worth the wait - although I am still angry it took this damned long to discover him.  Now I must go out and gobble up all available DVD's of Shinoda's work.  These include the Criterion editions of Samurai Spy (65) and Double Suicide (69); the Masters of Cinema editions of Assassination (64) and Silence (71); as well as Punishment Island/Captive's Island (66) and (of course) Pale Flower.  There are also some Japanese editions, but these are probably sans English subtitles (though the visual beauty of Shinoda makes up for lack of words).

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