Review: Pistol Opera (2001)

Directed by:
Cast: ,

Not available in Australia on DVD (to our knowledge)

I’ve been procrastinating on this review for the simple reason that I was, as I left the cinema, feeling just a little confused. You see, I really enjoyed this film, but I’m not entirely sure I understood it. Having seen Seijun Suzuki’s Branded to Kill (God Bless SBS) to which Pistol Opera is a sort of modernized sequel, and not actually having seen any other Suzuki films, I suppose I was expecting something similar. While some of the cinematic and narrative style that I was already familiar with was certainly present, I discovered I couldn’t have possibly been further from the truth.

So, in desperation to explain this film even adequately, and facilitate a review that will actually make sense, I’m going to break from some serious convention. I expect either I’ll get slammed for departing from the accepted format, or I’ll win a NETPAC-like award for my originality (bit of a private in-joke, but see my review for Seafood and the BIFF Wrap Up for a clue).

Reasons to like Pistol Opera

  • The hitman is actually Miyuki, a gorgeous hitwoman who doesn’t take any crap in the most stylish sense. A natural (killer that is), she refers to her guns as her ‘man’ (the member-envy, role-reversed implications of this were, I thought, highly amusing). However despite this inherent talent, and perhaps fondness for projectile weapons, she is bucking the system (so to speak!). In the opening scenes of the film it becomes apparent that she is not interested in playing by the Hitman Guild’s rules in an internal war to become ichi-ban on the Guild’s Best Hitmen list (she stands at number three and seems to like it that way). She is, as her code name Stray Cat implies, someone who does what she pleases and she doesn’t need anyone else to do it for her (literally!)
  • The film, both in narrative and treatment, was hugely unpredictable, often darkly funny and deeply, almost surrealistically theatrical. This of course is a double edge (since it was this departure from realism that made it a little difficult for me to readily understand), but when approached from this angle, Pistol Opera became something less like entertainment and more like modern art. Events are rather impressions as defined by the character, as opposed to realistic representations of what is happening.
  • The cinematographic effects were often metaphorical or symbolic rather than used to add whiz and bang to the action sequences. The set design was endlessly surprising, adding layered meanings to the story that gave the impression I was not just watching a film conceived by a writer/director, I was staring into his psyche. A little unsettling, but ultimately fascinating.
  • The opening credits were cool, the musical score was wonderful and the costumes were lush. Miyuki sported gloriously designed kimonos and knee-high leather boots. How could that possibly be bad?
  • The plain narrative, underneath all the experimentalism, was interesting enough to follow when things started getting a bit too trippy. Miyuki’s relationship with the agent was almost complex, especially with the vague introduction of the Hit School for Girls, and the situation our hitwoman finds herself in is challenging enough to make the film enjoyable enough on that level. The characters were interesting and the climax and conclusion is well worth the effort of sticking with it if you’re floundering a bit.

Reasons to dislike Pistol Opera

  • I was going to make another list, but after I started I realized that the main problems I had with this film related to the way in which it just didn’t apply itself to any straightforward narrative pattern. I can generally deal with all manner of conceptual, surreal or metaphorical material, however the narrative in Pistol Opera, while present, seemed to jump not between scenes but within them. For this reason, it was easy to follow the main story, but a little more difficult to work out what was going on within scenes. Hard work to watch until you realize that you have to just let go of your normal expectations (including leaving the film with a clear idea of what was going on, maybe!)

So there, probably that doesn’t give you as much of an idea about the film as a conventional review might, but you’ll have as much of an idea as I still do. I’ll make a deal with you. After a semester of Film, Media & Culture at uni, if I come across anything that makes any more sense of it than that, I’ll let you know. Until then, certainly expose yourself to a little filmic experimentalism and leave your expectations in the cinema foyer. Seijun Suzuki’s Pistol Opera will attempt to defy anything you bring with you.

6 Meaningless Attempts at Rating This Film out of 10.
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