"I enjoyed Pistol Opera, but it's certainly not for everyone. It takes a lot of effort to figure out what's going on at times and deciphering some of the symbols and character motivations might prove tedious to the casual viewer looking for more action than philosophy."
Pistol Opera (2001)
Director: Seijun Suzuki
Producer: Satoru Ogura, Ikki Katashima
Cast: Makiko Esumi, Sayoko Yamaguchi, Hanae Kan, Masatoshi Nagase, Kirin Kiki, Haruko Kato, Kenji Sawada, Mikijiro Hira.Ý
Running Time: 112 min.
Plot: Stray Cat is number three. She wants to be number one. "Pistol Opera" is an extreme tale of a woman assassin's surreal rise up through the ranks in the criminal underworld.
Availability: This title is available at HKflix.com
ALEXANDER'S REVIEW: Pistol Opera looks and sounds like it emerged from the twisted mind of Mulholland Drive and Twin Peaks director David Lynch. It's surreal and colorful and mesmerizing in its weirdness. While there isn't a dancing, backwards-talking dwarf in the film, odd characters abound, including the protagonist, a kimono-clad, lesbian, pistol-packing assassin who attempts to improve her station in The Guild, a secret organization of professional killers.
I haven't seen any of director Seijin Suzuki's other films, so I've no idea if Pistol Opera reflects his usual directing and story-telling style. He was one of Japan's most prolific director's in the '50s and '60s and is responsible for the much-lauded Tokyo Drifter and Branded to Kill (from which Pistol Opera is apparently based).
There's plenty to like about Pistol Opera. The film opens with a nifty Japanese spin on the opening credits in James Bond films. And Makiko Esumi is awesome as No. 3 assassin and main character "Black Cat." Even when the film veers into absurdity (which it does...often, especially towards the end), I wasn't able to take my eyes off of her. She's attractive, expressive and exudes a toughness that reminded me of Uma Thurman's Bride character in Kill Bill. (She's made even more appealing by the way she's shot. Suzuki often flims her in extreme close-up, or silhouetted against colorful backdrops and backlit screens.) Another part of the movie's appeal lies in its striking imagery. The hues are rich, varied and symbolic and reminded me of Zhang Yimou's use of color in Hero and House of Flying Daggers. Many scenes were shot as if they were being performed on a stage, with static backdrops and two-dimensional sets (whether a pagoda, a ship yard or rooftop, each scene is perfectly blocked and filmed) and an economy of movement (and sometimes even pantomime) by the performers.
However, despite the appeal of Esumi's "Black Cat" and some of the more interesting scenes (the opening duel between Esumi and the wheelchair-bound assassin, "The Teacher," is both thrilling and hilarious, for example), Pistol Opera's biggest flaw is that it really amounts to little more than a string of scenes and images. It is a series of arresting visuals held together very, very loosely by the oft-used assassin-wants-to-be-No. 1 story line. And while some of these scenes are beautiful to behold (for example, the final scene, set against a towering Mt. Fuji, is one of the most stunning I have ever see), many other bits left me scrunching up my face in confusion and asking question after question about, well, all sorts of random shit.
I enjoyed Pistol Opera, but it's certainly not for everyone. It takes a lot of effort to figure out what's going on at times and deciphering some of the symbols and character motivations might prove tedious to the casual viewer looking for more action than philosophy. There are even a few lengthy monologues and some random, post-modern dances (and mime!), which might further test the audience's patience. Admittedly, I gave up trying make sense of the story about halfway through and instead spent the last portion of Pistol Opera enjoying Esumi and the brilliant look of the film.
ALEXANDER'S RATING: 8/10