Saturday, 31 July 2021

Every Little Thing I Adore About 'Pale Flower'...

This post was inspired by (and warmly stolen from) Alex Withrow at the wonderful ‘And So It Begins’. Check out his takes here.

I first saw Masahiro Shinoda’s ‘Pale Flower’ while I was writing for a website called The Cinemaholic, after I’d finally been given carte-blanche to choose whatever topic I wanted and boldly (and incredibly foolishly) decided to tackle the ‘100 Greatest Japanese Films of All Time’.

There’s not a country on this planet as richly blessed in the cinematic arts as Japan. Not even France, or America. In the ashes of the Second World War a nation rocked to the core (perhaps by its own actions as much as anyone else’s) spiralled into a cinematic renaissance that is, frankly, still yet to cease.

And from the murky depths of early 60s malaise, entrenched in the blossoming wonder of their own New Wave Movement, a genre picture maker named Masahiro Shinoda with more of an eye than most and more to him that anyone’s ever properly given credit for pre-dated the American crime film explosion of the 1970s in one film alone. If they only knew.

The tragic purity of the film’s opening image: A graceful figure frozen in stone- endless crowds passing its beauty by- the buzzing lights and bell-jar of focus sealing it all in a glassy haze. Simple and sublime.

The fact that Pale Flower was Taxi Driver 1.0. It’s may have pulpy noir-esque dressing stitched into its lonely heart but this film’s delirious new-wave style captures the same wandering soul as Scorsese’s classic a decade before it hit the screen.

Director Masahiro Shinoda’s inspiring love for quick-cut, gorgeously lensed atmospheric cutaways.

The fact this one-sided exchange is all ‘his turf’ can muster as a welcome home.

The innocuous shot the title card juts in over- elevated by the part-cacophonous, part-jazzy nightmare score of, you guessed it: Toru Takemitsu.

For as cheap as New Wave films were supposed to be, it really makes me wonder how much time the crew spent getting all these tiny, spellbindingly stygian cutaways in pretty much every scene of the film.

How starkly the film makes use of its contrast. This street isn’t just dark- it burns black.

The lightwheel lazily spinning behind Muraki’s head as he walks in on his ex-lover.

Shinoda using the clocks we just saw as an L-cut to later in the night, as well as the tide of chugging ticks sounding off all around them. The film’s style is so tightly woven into its ruthless editing there’s barely a second for us, or its characters, to steal a breathe.

How comfortable Shinoda is taking an inverse track from the normal Nu-Wave thing of cutting between as many different shots as fast as possible with the first of many stealth one-ers. Every time he locks into one of these, it seems like the walls around Muraki fall away and he begins to grasp how little he has. No wonder we’re always sprinting from shot to shot.

The scar in the dark where chemistry should be constantly stinging between these two. Pale Flower catches an ex-con out of prison with little left of a life to throw away and a well-off girl on a fast-track to lose everything; and the detailed attention paid to their photography somehow helps the emptiness in and around them feel so palpable.

The chilling blankness on Muraki’s face as he fights off a thug sent to stab him, as well as the breezy bowling alley music that the scene’s content mutates from cheery to haunting.

Is he looking at us?

How nonchalantly this thug talks about his own severed finger.

Again, Shinoda plays these quiet moments so delicately: He only allows reality to sink back in for the briefest times, just the same as Muraki’s head might fight above the black banks of clouds to finally see he’s wasting even more of his own time- only for another cut to drag us all back under again.

Another stealth one-er, though this static three minutes isn’t exactly sneaky- but I love the way the crew almost use light throughout the film as a vice of delusion. Whenever we stray into the void, Muraki comes face to face with his past- and perhaps a path away from it. The islands of light pockmarking his wake are all gambling dens and little lamps onto yet more cards and lies. Its fascinating that Shinoda reverses the usual relationship of light and dark to more effectively weaponize the conflict in the film’s photography: We can only find truth if we face into our own depths.

A tribute to a recently fallen idol, perhaps…?

The insidious tension of their first high-stakes game. In an inky world of switchblade hoods there’s something about this room full of the men in suits that own them, ever-watching when your back is turned, that’s so much more terrifying.

This eerie, vice-like angle that always makes me think of the best scene in ‘The King of Comedy’.

The blink-and-you’ll miss it shadow of Muraki that flashes by this lateral shot.

The tragic beauty of the two impenetrable lead characters being perfectly dry in a car bleeding rain.

Shinoda holding on this shot of Muraki walking after S has flipped her headlights off. We spend a good few seconds in the dark with him and from then on the man drawls into voiceover, almost like his part in life is receding in line with the film’s form. It’s notable that throughout the second half of Pale Flower, a story in which Muraki had been the star of every scene, Shinoda lets the forces of his past tendril into the tale and re-take command of his agency. He’s a constant presence in the film but instead of towering, he lingers from every shadow- watching a life he no-longer owns have its last few wings picked away.

The doll-like blots of soft focus burning white where his eyes should be.

The ever-gorgeous coverage, pitch-dark sound design and clammy, feverish patience of the film’s perfect chase scene.

The even more gorgeous, deliciously slow-mo, Takemitsu-laced wonder of the film’s proceeding nightmare sequence.

The way Muraki jerks awake after we spend just a second too long on this same wall- as if he knows all his past thoughts of hope are still waiting just a few feet out of reach there.

How brutally the composition sidelines our main character whenever the boss is in the room. So telling.

This gem right after a sharp piece of advice about the best way to stab a rival.

The whip pan to Muraki getting chewed out by his ex-lover, out of focus and quick to open his eyes as if he realises the camera has noticed him trying to escape. And look at how mercilessly lonely that frame is.

Shinoda lingering with the woman Muraki is leaving. Tiny moments of compassion say so much in these abyssal crime flicks. (See also: Michael Mann)

Words don’t really do justice to the final scene of Pale Flower, or its lethal prison epilogue. It’s a sequence so far ahead of its time in conception, style and fearless execution it’s actually a little terrifying. Shinoda takes a film that’s been shrivelling up into the desperately shed skin of its worn-out antihero and injects it with a still-life operatic gut-punch so mortifying it could peel the last licks of paint off the four walls in Muraki’s mind. I have no doubt the great crime films of the following decade like Taxi Driver and The Godfather owe a silent debt to this forgotten picture, largely down to their eclectic auteurs- and I’d rank it among the best of them. From its doomy cage of structure to the withered, cyclical ennui on which its black heart burns the last few breaths- there really never has an undercover genre piece as prophetic as this.

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