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Film review: Fireworks (Hana-bi)

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Many Hong Kong film fans are despondent over the mass exodus of actors and directors from China, which has coincided with the return of the city to Chinese rule. But there are still some reasons to remain optimistic about the state of Asian cinema.

For one thing, a handful of talented directors still remains in China (including acclaimed art-house filmmaker Wong Kar-Wai). And then there's China's nearby neighbor Japan, which is producing some overlooked masterpieces of its own.

Among them are the works of writer/director/actor "Beat" Takeshi Kitano, who is also a popular comic, television host and novelist in his home country.

Kitano's films display very Hong Kong-like characteristics, and his latest, "Fireworks (Hana-bi)" is an exceptional piece of filmmaking, a drama that blurs the line between the ultra-violent cop movie genre and weepy but moving melodrama, and does it very convincingly.

The storyline revolves around Yoshitaka Nichi (Kitano), a guilt-ridden, former detective who blames himself for neglecting his wife, Miyuki (Kayoko Kishimoto), and for not being there when his longtime partner, Horibe (Ren Osugi) was paralyzed during a police stakeout.

But after retiring from the force, Nichi begins making it up to both of them, spending more time with Miyuki, who is dying from leukemia, and encouraging the embittered Horibe to become an artist. Unbeknownst to them, he has borrowed money from local yakuza leaders — the same people who had Horibe shot in the first place.

Refusing to go to work for the crooks but desperate to keep supporting his "wards," he even robs a bank to fund a vacation trip for himself and his wife to Mount Fuji. There, he has one final, fateful confrontation with the gangsters, as well as one of his former co-workers, Nakamura (Susumu Terajima).

As a director, Kitano manages to make the graphic violence and gentle drama equally compelling with an almost dreamlike narrative style. And he balances the more brutal scenes with dark humor.

The acting is equally good, with with Kitano displaying an almost Buster Keaton-like impassiveness until the very end, and Osugi subtly portraying a man smoldering with frustration and rage.

"Fireworks (Hana-bi)" is not rated but would certainly receive at least an R for violent fistfighting and gunplay, gory makeup effects, profanity and some vulgar references.