like a painting that's pleasant to look at and makes frustratingly no sense at all
Seijun Suzuki has made great films, and at least some very good ones. And oddly enough some of those films were done not with a completely free hand. Suzuki had resistance (and even got fired during the editing) with Branded to Kill, his 1967 masterpiece that serves as the sort of inspiration for this *extremely* loose remake/re-telling. But maybe that served him better than here, which is a little like Lynch with Inland Empire: the floodgates are open, and it's high time to just let whatever s***'s inside fly out. Only unlike a Lynchian DV mescaline trip into brain-tubes, this is like a Kabuki fever dream cooked up by the samurai in Lowry's dream scenes in Brazil. It's an artist working without a net and, frankly, without much of a story or close to identifiable actors, either.
If Pistol Opera weren't made by a director who has a sure hand with his craft, if not in his old age a mastery, then it would be just about unwatchable. This is something sad to say as I would have loved to consider Pistol Opera a luxurious expressionist piece, something that is so assured with creating a mood that it doesn't need a firm story. But in this story, whatever there is of it, about a female No. 3 killer (in Branded it was male) who has to face off against the Hundred Eyes killer and the No. 1 killer while fending off the pleas of a little girl who just wants to be a killer too, it needs some kind of focus from time to time. After a few scenes of strange set up where No. 3 faces her "boss" of sorts who wears a mouth mask and talk in abstract dialog, the film just goes off into tangents... and then more of them...
Some of this, perhaps, was meant to be parody, a delirious send-up of both Yakuza thrillers and Kabuki theater, and its shot half on location (there is, in one of the most satisfying and crazy scenes, a chase between No. 3 and a man in a skewed wheelchair along a riverbank), half in studio. But it's not very funny, and its not really all-encompassing as a work of surrealism. I was taken in by its cinematography and sets and a perversely awesome array of colors, and make no mistake there's rarely a frame of the film that doesn't look gorgeous. But there needs to be more than just fantastical camera moves. There's a shoot-out towards the end that not only breaks the 180 degree rule (you know the one if you're familiar with basic camera direction) but gives it a middle finger with a silver bullet right between the face.
But there needs to be something else, something that Branded to Kill and Tokyo Drifter just had instinctively, which is soul, a purpose in its subversion. Too much of Pistol Opera feels like exercise without result, like in those overlong scenes with the woman talking to the camera about God knows what. I expected the unexpected, but I didn't expect to be... bewildered to disappointment.
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