Pistol Opera (2001)

Directed by
Unique and striking but over-long
Reviewed by Simon on 2012-05-22

Now, what was that I was saying about Japanese cinema pushing boundaries earlier? 78 year old Seijun Suzuki must have been listening, and travelled back in time to make PISTOL OPERA just to prove me right. I'm unsure whether or not to mention that PISTOL OPERA makes no sense. It is most certainly true, but I'm not sure it's a relevant observation for a movie that is so far removed from the whole concept of "sense". What we have here is an art movie, but it's more like the art of Dali or Warhol than of Zhang Yimou or Wong Kar-Wai. There is no narrative... it sometimes likes to pretend there is, but you can tell by the movie's smirk that it isn't being sincere. It's purely impressionistic cinema, surreal and undoubtedly pretentious (is it still possible to be pretentious in the 21st century? I'm not sure). It's a visual, audio and hallucinatory expression of bold colours, consciously framed tableaux, enigmatic dialogue and impenetrable characters. Unique, striking and mesmerizing... though at no point comprehensible from a narrative point of view.

The veil of a plot is something about a female assassin called Stray Cat, ranked number 3 in the assassin's guild. Guild politics has put her in conflict with the other members, with reaching the top slot being the only chance of survival. I mention these things only as a way of letting you know that you will see a) an amazingly cute kimono wearing assassin. b) her mysterious and cruel-featured agent (an older female). c) some guns. b) some cool poses and kinetic camerawork.

And that's really what the movie is about. Scenes are introduced and framed purely with regard to aesthetic and impressionistic considerations. Why does Stray Cat do this? Why does her agent do that? Why is there a pubescent girl hanging around for much of the movie, asking to be taught how to kill and offering sexual favours in return? Why is the first assassin Stray Cat faces bound to some kind of sports wheelchair? Why do the characters move between gorgeous scenic locations and strange, minimal studio sets without any clear pattern or purpose? There is no reason... it just makes for beautiful imagery.

The movie is definitely a unique and striking experience, but it must be said that this abstract art approach is not enough to sustain the movie for its 110 minute run time, with the total absence of narrative and hence any kind of dramatic tension. If Suzuki just wanted to make a purely aesthetic movie then fine, but he should have been more ruthless in that quest, and kept it totally non-verbal. It didn't need the characters talking nonsense too. By the 90 minute mark I was really ready for the movie to finish, and I would probably have decided I'd seen enough and walked out (not the kind of movie where missing the end makes any real difference) if it weren't for the movies greatest asset and strength... simply that the actress in the lead role is absolutely beautiful. A truly classic beauty, and dressed and filmed exquisitely... she manages to carry a movie that requires of its cast little beyond aesthetic qualities, which she has in plentiful abundance.

I'd still have been happier if the movie had run more like 80-90 minutes though :)