Friday, May 23, 2008

REVIEW: Dead or Alive (Hanzaisha) - Takashi Miike (1999)

Reviewed by Marc Saint-Cyr

Takashi Miike’s Dead or Alive: Hanzaisha begins not with a whisper, but a bang. Or rather, a rapid succession of bangs: a prostitute falling to her death, a man snorting a mile-long line of cocaine, another man gorging himself on bowl after bowl of noodles before his dinner splatters out of his stomach via shotgun blast; all this and more amid the wild jangling of an electric guitar. If there ever were ten minutes of film meant to grab the viewer’s attention, they’re right here.

Most writings on this film tend to give priority to its stand-out opening and closing sequences. However, to do so is to discredit its remaining body, which is impressive in its own right, yet much more calmly paced and subtly layered. Throughout it, Miike goes back and forth between detective Jojima (Show Aikawa), who is struggling to save his terminally ill daughter, and Chinese-born yakuza Ryuichi (Riki Takeuchi), who presides over a close-knit team of misfit crooks and attempts to reconcile with his estranged brother. Dead or Alive does something quite different from the standard crime film in that its cop and criminal characters are shown as having emotional commitments that lie outside the world of crime, and one can get quite caught up in the unfolding drama before returning to more genre-bound plot points. Yet even those are given a typically unique (and often grisly) Miike twist, sneaking up on the viewer and pouncing with the same hard-hitting intensity that made Audition such a revelation amongst jaded horror fans.

But despite many gruesome moments and a bullet-filled sequence that would make John Woo proud, this is not a total guns-ablaze bonanza, but instead a well-drawn character study focused on the crime world and the diversity of people who surround and comprise it. More common than the visceral action sequences are the many static camera long-take scenes that mostly consist of dialogue and are meant to deliver character development and emotional impact; they are presented with such care and patience that they almost seem part of a completely different film. However, before too long, the personal and criminal worlds of the two main characters overlap, inevitably bringing about tragic consequences and, yes, an ultimate showdown to (quite literally) end all ultimate showdowns. But what to make of the much talked-about final scene (which I won’t spoil here)? Depending on your point of view, it could be a clever spoof of action movies and their cartoon logic, an epic testament to the pairing of stars Aikawa and Takeuchi (both of whom radiate sheer cool throughout this film) or just Miike refusing to adhere to basic formulas and coming up with his own crazy, gleefully original alternative. Oddly enough, this final bit of madcap spontaneity ends the film on just the right note, effectively delivering thematic (if nonsensical) closure.

A stimulating work to behold, Dead or Alive: Hanzaisha effectively showcases the depth and scope of Miike’s talents and remains one of the most satisfying films of his that I’ve seen thus far.

Read more by Marc Saint-Cyr at his blog.

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