Starring: Ryô Ikebe, Mariko Kaga, Naoki Sugiura
Director: Masahiro Shinoda
Running Time: 96 mins
Pale Flower is a Japanese film about a gangster, recently released from prison, who is forced to come to terms with the shift in power between local gangs, as well as look after a young woman who has become embroiled in the gambling underworld.
With a sleek and crystal-cool vibe throughout, Pale Flower is a brilliantly atmospheric watch, proving an immersive and engrossing look into the dark underworld of the yakuza, all the while featuring powerfully striking directing, two excellent lead performances, and an intriguing story that, while not quite as emotionally hard-hitting as intended, keeps you well on the edge of your seat.
First off, the thing that cannot be ignored about Pale Flower is its palpable atmosphere that combines the sleek, cool personas of the gangster world, with a dark grittiness that lends strong depth and stakes to the film. As a result, the movie is both hugely entertaining, as well as a powerfully atmospheric piece that’s difficult to take your eyes away from.
Using striking cinematography that’s full of sharp light-and-dark contrasts, the movie really pops on screen, and when combined with that ice-cool persona that makes it all so memorable, the film’s real character is borne out. Rather than being a simple gangster movie that takes a dark look at the violence and power plays of the underworld, the film has an immense likability to it that sets it apart from so many others in the genre.
As well as coming from the sleek atmosphere and striking cinematography, that likability and entertainment value comes signficantly from the two lead performances from Ryô Ikebe and Mariko Kaga. Playing characters that are entirely embroiled in a world of violence and crime, the film sees the duo as far more honest personalities, and that’s portrayed brilliantly by the two lead actors.
Ikebe’s performance is the coolest thing about the whole movie, with a serene assuredness that’s on a par with the likes of Marcello Mastroianni, giving his character an undeniable suave charm, something that’s only furthered by his relationship with Mariko Kaga, whose performance is also excellent, brilliantly playing off Ikebe in a playful and often flirtatious fashion, all the while marooning with enough mystery and ambiguity to make her character absolutely riveting to follow throughout.
When it comes to the darker side of things, director Masahiro Shinoda steps in with some fantastic work throughout, not only giving an intriguing insight into the yakuza underworld, but also stunning with some palpably tense and exciting moments.
While the movie’s focus on the shifting balance of power on the gang’s turf is interesting, the film’s most memorable set-pieces are the various gambling sequences, as we see Mariko Kaga’s character surprise all her male competitors with her presence at the table, while the increasingly high-stakes nature of the games allows for some genuinely intense moments, offering up more excitement than any of the crime action throughout, and further cementing the film’s ice cool identity with a series steely and suspenseful games.
As a result, there’s no denying that Pale Flower is a seriously cool and powerfully atmospheric watch, but the one area in which it unfortunately falls down is its emotional depth.
The story focuses on Ikebe’s seasoned gangster taking care of a young woman who has become so deeply embroiled in gambling in the underworld, and while there is action and crime drama to boot, the core of the film’s story is the relationship between those two.
Now, while the pair have good chemistry throughout, I felt there was a certain tenderness that was really missing from the film, because as well as seeing Ikebe taking care of Kaga, the story focuses on his own inner emotional turmoil, reevaluating his place in the world he has been a part of for so long, all the while judging his long-term loyalties and this new relationship.
However, while there is a lot of depth to the story, it’s overshadowed by the movie’s more striking atmosphere, and doesn’t give enough of an opportunity for you to step back and delve into our main man’s inner psyche, which was a point of real frustrationg for me, as the movie never proves quite as deeply enthralling as should have been the case.
Overall, though, I was very impressed by Pale Flower. Above all, it’s a sleek and ice cool gangster movie with a palpable atmosphere of both suave characters and dark grit, featuring excellent directing and cinematography throughout, as well as two fantastic lead performances, and although the story doesn’t quite fulfil its potential, failing to provide strong emotional depth throughout, it’s an engrossing and entertaining watch, and that’s why I’m giving it a 7.7.