Sunday, October 09, 2005

Pistol Opera Review

Damn you Seijun Suzuki.

Pistol Opera is an incredibly interesting film from the 80 year old master of abstract yakuza experimentalism. What it is NOT, is anything like its trailer which has been floating around on various DVDs and online sources. While said trailer is a lightning quick mash up of every interesting moment of the film, the film itself is…all of those moments over 2 hours. Mind you, this isn’t a bad thing as Suzuki’s slow paced weirdness works as well in 2002 as it did in 1967, the year he made his masterpiece Branded to Kill of which this film is a remake, but audiences should tread with care and make sure they know what they’re getting into with this one.

That said, Pistol Opera is still an incredibly interesting film and it’s a testament to Suzuki’s skill as a director that he managed to make such an interesting and bizarre movie out of such a simple premise. Stray Cat is the #3 killer of a ruthless guild of assassins. She wants to be #1 and carnage ensues. Pretty basic huh? Except the film is essentially shot like an experimental Japanese play with little regard for continuity and even basic editing conventions. While Suzuki was never considered a member of the Japanese New Wave in the 60’s as he was viewed as a studio supported genre director and not an intellectual independent one, viewers can definitely see more than a few similarities between Pistol Opera and the best 60’s work by the movement’s finest. For one thing, the theatrical use of backgrounds as simple back drops for character interaction immediately brings to mind the new wave’s predilection for the stage. Suzuki infuses this technique with his own personality and style however as both the location settings and theatrical backgrounds are extremely colorful in a pop-art style that pushes boundaries even in over stimulated Japan. Other new wave traits such as the weird island men near the end of the film (reminiscent of the new wave’s sun cult obsession) and the admittedly confusing, abstract plot imbued with semi-comprehensible meanings are also present giving the film a link to the concerns of Suzuki’s generation. With Imamura in semi retirement, Shinoda more or less MIA and Oshima last seen doing gay samurai melodrama, its worth mentioning that Seijun Suzuki is perhaps the most notable member of his generation still creating thought provoking and convention breaking art.

From a purely narrative point of view, Pistol Opera is a mess. While much is probably lost in translation, the storyline is still incredibly difficult to follow and it’s generally easier to simply go with the flow of the assassinations and subsequent mediations for the film’s 2 hour duration. Doing so will allow you to admire some of the most vibrant images ever committed to screen by anyone, much less an 80 year old man. Pistol Opera’s costumes, set design and cinematography are truly top notch and the associative editing only adds to the surreal feeling giving the film a tone that’s part Bunuel, part Deren, part Jodorowski, part LSD, part gangster film and 100% Suzuki. While the symbolism behind the various monologues, backgrounds and plot twists are undoubtedly interesting; I doubt anyone unfamiliar with Japanese will manage to get anywhere near the meaning of this film as things get pretty obtuse. It’s probably a better idea to concentrate on the bright colors.

It’s impossible to stress how important Suzuki is as a historical figure in Japanese film history. Without his contributions to the art, I doubt Takashi Miike or Shinya Tsukamoto would have found it possible or even conceivable to put their shocking v-cinema to celluloid or video tape. However, it’s an extremely pleasant surprise to see that the master continues to create at a level equal to or surpassing that of his younger days and I’d put Pistol Opera head to head against any contemporary weird out film including its distant cousin Izo. Those roped in by the trailer or unable to handle slow pacing should abstain, but fans of entertaining yet intellectual brain-candy can rest assured that Suzuki hasn’t lost his touch.


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