Wednesday, September 22, 2010

NYFF ’10: Pale Flower

In a different time and place, Muraki could have been a hard-bitten P.I. or a high plains drifter, but in an early 1960’s Japanese film, he had to be a yakuza. Spectacularly cynical, his contempt for humanity is constantly justified throughout Masahiro Shinoda’s classic Pale Flower, which screens during the 2010 New York Film Festival as part of their Masterworks retrospective tribute to the director.

Recently released from prison, Muraki finds things have changed. His boss has forged an alliance with the rival crime lord whose henchmen he was ordered to kill. This ought to be an awkward situation for Muraki, but he is too cool to care. One gets the sense he is simply looking for a distraction as he waits for death to come calling. In that respect, meeting Saeko is fortuitous.

An innocent looking beauty of apparent means, the mystery woman loves to gamble and does not mind losing substantial sums. Recognizing a man of action when she sees one, Saeko convinces the jaded enforcer to vouchsafe her at the yakuza’s high roller games. Thus begins a chaste but worldly courtship of a sort, not that Muraki will let it go anywhere.

Beyond noir, Flower’s characters seem to live in a preternaturally twilight world, where violence and death are constants, but the only real enemy is boredom. Muraki scrupulously lives by a code of honor, yet it means nothing more to him than observing traffic signals. Indeed, Ryô Ikebe truly delivers the noir goods as the sullen yakuza, perfectly conveying hardnosed grit and existential resignation.

Stylistically, Flower is so hyper-noir, it surpasses the excesses of self-parody, luxuriating in its moody underworld milieu. Thanks to Kosugi Masao’s elegant cinematography, nearly every frame is worthy of framing, despite the dissolute nature of the on-screen action. In fact, so much time is spent in gambling dens and the like, Flower was initially shelved for months after its completion.

A figure associated with the Japanese New Wave, Shinoda displays a genuine mastery of film noir forms in Flower well beyond that of French Nouvelle Vague auteurs inspired by the genre, such as Godard and Truffaut. Yet, it is still edgy and subversive, well deserving the “New Wave” appellation. Seriously hip and absolutely absorbing, a new print of Flower screens Saturday (9/25) as part of the Masterworks tribute to Shinoda at this year’s NYFF.