Wednesday, December 27, 2006

Film Review--Sonatine

Sonatine is the first of Takeshi Kitano's films that I've seen and it certainly didn't wind up being what I had expected. I haven't seen a huge number of Japanese crime films, but I've seen enough to expect some certain elements. In what begins as a story of a crime boss sent to Okinawa to defuse a turf issue, I got some of these elements: bloody shootings, a smarmy hero, and maybe some Yakuza politics. Kitano is funny as the smarmy hero (he also directed, wrote, and edited the film), the shootings are pretty bloody, and there are enough immediately quirky side characters to keep the audience intrigued and amused. There is a sadistic charm in the nonchalance that these killers display in their jobs. It's the kind of black humor where laughing makes you question your sanity and is a welcome change from what can often be an over-serious genre. This whole first part is very well done and would have been a worthy film even if it had stayed this way. Then, things change.

The second act of Sonatine is where things get going and is almost like nothing I've ever seen. Much of the camerawork throughout the film is handled with increasingly slow, drawn out shots, and the story follows suit. Once Kitano and his men get to Okinawa and set up on the beach, they have to wait for the order to begin their operation. This order may take a while, so good thing it's summertime and the weather's nice, because it's time for gangsters to relax!! Frisbee, dancing, sumo, puppy love, all the trappings of an Okinawa summer are in their hands and they soak it up. Here, the movie becomes pure comedy and almost makes you forget that their job will inevitably be to kill a whole bunch of people. It's comes on pretty strong at times, but Kitano displays the same level of ambivalence to these surreal, funny moments as he did to the violent ones and the good-natured, almost childlike innocence makes the the whole experience pleasantly strange.

All good things must come to an end, however and, finally, the group must return to their violent, if still pretty nonchalant ways. The film closes much as it opened, with a bang. Really, a big one. There are a lot of shockingly violent acts here, almost always played to offset some comedy. Neither undermines the other, though, and both aspects add so much to each character. The movie has no essential plot; these people could be doing anything and it wouldn't really make a difference. As characters, these are complete. Kitano gives these people real humanity, where not everything looks cool, and even the smarmiest of heroes can fall in love. Most importantly, the humanity he gives them makes us forget that they are cold-blooded mass murderers. The execution of this is the most difficult part to understand. How he achieves this smooth transition is obscure, but its effectiveness is clear. The Miami Vice-style soundtrack aside, the film is otherwise fantastic and is one of the best of this genre I've seen