Friday, July 19, 2013

Pale Flower (1964)

Of the various New Waves in cinema, I probably am least familiar with Japan's, but that's soon to change because I just saw Shinoda's gangster noir Pale Flower and absolutely loved it. In a way it does everything a New Wave film should do: it uses the past for inspiration and a creative, singular passion to fulfill its twofold agenda. The amalgam is what Truffaut and Godard did around the same time with Breathless and Shoot the Piano Player, though I'm inclined to say Shinoda's film is a better one than those.

Are there concrete reasons for this claim or is it just preference? I would say both. Yes, from a purely subjective angle I found Pale Flower to be more dramatically compelling than the aforementioned French pictures, I found its story to be more arresting, and its protagonist to be far more complex. One could say that this is a perfectly sound argument, but lets not forget that in a film like Breathless, the superficiality was sort of the whole point.

But I would argue that Pale Flower is objectively superior to those films because it truly succeeds in combining the forces of imitation and innovation. Its lead character, Muraki, is fresh out of prison and sort of ambling about the criminal world again but clearly hesitant to get too involved in anything. When he discovers an alluring young woman at an illegal gambling parlor, however, he finds himself slipping back into the criminal mentality that put him behind bars in the first place. This is where Shinoda is drawing on imitation, or inspiration. The set-up of a man drawn into a tangled, unhappy world because of a woman's allure is probably the most typical narrative force in crime stories. While Godard chose to take characters that pretended like they were classic crime characters, Shinoda is giving us the real deal, and in my mind that fulfills the first half of what New Wave crime cinema is centered on. 

And yet the innovation in Pale Flower is endless. First of all, consider the fact that the woman, Saeko, is not just a feminine presence who uses sex to cast her spell. When Muraki finds her at the gambling den, it's the fact that she is actually gambling that draws him to her. Gambling is traditionally a male oriented pastime (partly because they generally have all the money), and at least in the movies a woman's presence is simply to cast some luck, watch, or make her man look good. Shinoda turns the tables, though, and makes Saeko a forceful presence, good enough to get into the most elite games. In 1964, had a film with a heavy focus on gambling ever done that? Or what about the fact that there's a car chase in the film, only it's not Muraki behind the wheel, but Saeko. Or consider that it's Saeko who is drawn to drugs and ends up using them, not Muraki. 

 Shinoda's technical method is similar to his narrative choices in that he likes to mix the old and the new. Shinoda shoots some scenes with the careful precision of Ozu (whom he worked with as an assistant director), yet at other times he'll use wild tracking shots, dreamlike lighting (there's also an actual dream sequence that's quite visually impressive), and unexpected musical choices. Consider the scene towards the end when Muraki goes to a restaurant to kill a rival crime boss. He's been told not to use a gun, so when he stabs his target, he pulls his victim up and supports him as they stumble through the restaurant. Shinoda shoots it with a tracking shot, so we clearly see the action, and then he keeps cutting to a close up of Saeko, who is watching from a distance. For music during this scene he uses a Henry Purcell opera piece, which gives the scene weight and truly climactic feel. Roger Ebert has a great line when he says it is the "equivalent of an orgasm created by Muraki for Saeko."

Shinoda shoots most of the film at night, and his lighting is always impeccable. In one scene we see Muraki and Saeko in a car just after a rain storm, and streetlight makes the wet windshield look almost crystalized. Or consider how he structures a brilliant night scene in the street when Muraki feels he is being followed. Shinoda shows us nothing but Muraki's face, the dark, empty streets, and shadows. In other words, he understands that the craft of a suspense scene is what makes it suspenseful. But Shinoda also shoots some scenes in the daylight, like the final sequence set in a prison. I won't describe it, but watch the way he frames the two characters that are talking. It's a great lesson on how to make a simple scene visually interesting with nothing but natural light, two figures, and a frame to put them in.

Pale Flower recalls in a way the great Melville film Le Samourai in that its hero isn't grounded so much in the noir tradition as he is in that of the samurai. Muraki shows a kind of moral weakness in his relationship with Saeko, yet ultimately as you watch his character progress you realize men like him rise and fall by the codes they live by. I have plenty of respect for what Godard and Truffaut were trying to do, but I still find Shinoda, and also Melville (who deserves much more said about him than can be fit in here), as more compelling New Wave filmmakers. Pale Flower floors you; it's at once very familiar and yet it's also unlike anything you've seen. 

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