Hana-Bi, translated and released in the U.S. as Fireworks, is a film directed by, written by, and starring Takeshi Kitano (more popularly known as Beat Takeshi), and it is largely not what it seems. If one were to look at the plot summary, or even maybe a few stills from the film, it would seem to be a crime/police drama about a retired cop who resorts to any measures to care for his ailing wife, but there’s a lot more at work here than just that. This is a calm, peaceful meditation, rather than a balls-to-the-wall action-filled epic. Now, that will likely set a few people off, especially those who would go into this film with the wrong mindset of what is to come, so allow me to elaborate a little bit and hopefully give those who would give this a try (and this is certainly one to at least give a try) a little clarity.
Nishi is a detective who, as the story starts, quits his job after his partner is shot and paralyzed from the waist down, an incident that the film very lightly implies that Nishi blames himself for. His wife is currently dying of leukemia, and he is forced to take out loans from the yakuza in order to care for her, which leads Nishi to take some drastic measures in order to pay the money back. All the while, we also follow his partner, Horibe, as he deals with his paralysis by coming into his own as a painter. To say that this is a character study of the two men is to undersell the film somewhat. This is a study of mood, not just character, although there is ample development for both of the protagonists. Nishi, for instance, is shown to be quite the violent man when prompted; the handful of reviews comparing this film to Drive seem to have gotten it right on the mark. So did the Book, which states that this is “a film with violence in it, not a violent film”. The film had an interesting storytelling method, in that it seems to alternate between telling you bits of plot and backstory, and actually showing them to you with very little or no dialogue covering it. I wasn’t really certain whether or not I liked or disliked the film’s method, mostly because it switched it up so much. The film would also frequently jump back and forth through time, hopping into a flashback without letting you know that it is one, since the film’s present-day scenes are largely shaped the same as the memories, so the film might be a tad confusing to some. Ultimately, though, I think the structure of the film works, or at least it succeeds in its intentions.
There was a lot to like about Hana-Bi, but I was able to acknowledge that it was only because I’d been able to find out just what kind of film it was going to be before I started it, which definitely eliminated most of the whiplash I probably would’ve felt had I gone into this with only first impressions to go by. The cinematography and score were also exceedingly effective at shaping the melancholic and unburdened mood the film wanted to cultivate, which, if nothing else, is the largest selling point this one has to differentiate it from other films that might want to steal some of its thunder, even if they don’t really know why this is such an effective film in the first place. For what it’s worth, I liked this a lot, though I can see how some wouldn’t, if they were a little misled as to what kind of film this was going to be. Hopefully, this has helped to clear up some of the tint on your glasses, and you can appreciate this for the very fine film that it is.
Arbitrary Rating: 8/10