Pale Flower is a love story where the two characters have no idea how to love. When the gangster Muraki first encounters the mysterious Saeko in an underground gambling den, he has just been released from prison for killing a man. He's immediately infatuated with her, but it's not entirely clear why beyond her obvious beauty and the novelty of her presence in a mostly male world. Like other damaged-love stories, Muraki and Saeko come together through mutual fascination - he is fascinated by her constant search for an adrenaline rush, while she is drawn in by his ability to take a life. But Pale Flower isn't like similar films because at no point during the film does it seem likely that their relationship will be consummated or even fully expressed. When Muraki runs into Saeko in her real life, he seems entirely disappointed with the fact that she exists. It is clear he wishes he had never seen her. Yet he is fascinated by her double life, and the scene takes on an erotic quality that makes the film around it seem all the more sexual.
Masahiro Shinoda made Pale Flower as a direct response to the popular yakuza films of the era, but really Shinoda is channeling Godard and Melville, with a splash of b-movie Hollywood noir. The director uses all manner of cinematic techniques, and while some of them come across as meaningless flash, other elements (particularly the dream sequence) are as mesmerizing as Toru Takemitsu's score, which blends in with the rhythms of the gambling sounds that populate the characters' world. The film's dull nihilism manages to avoid easy traps because of the technique on show.
Shinoda has two other films in the collection: Samurai Spy, which I had mixed feelings about, and Double Suicide, which I have yet to see. Both of those films were made after Pale Flower, and it's clear this is the work of a young director (he was in his early thirties at the time). The story is ambitious where more mature filmmakers would have been intimate, the style is flashy where subtlety would have seemed more impenetrable but also more intense, and the film's freewheeling attitude reminds me of Miike's Ichi the Killer (minus the torture and bisected bodies). I have little doubt that Quentin Taratino loves Pale Flower.
This might all give the sense that I thought Pale Flower was a less successful film. But these choices don't make the film worse, just different than it might have been in other hands - less delicate, perhaps, but more energetic. Furthermore, the anti-love story at the center has left me haunted, and despite the various flourishes I think Melville would approve of Shinoda's work here for this reason. Pale Flower is about these two characters - the warring gang plot is merely a vehicle to get Muraki to kill again, his dalliance with the other woman a counterpoint to his confused and unrealized feelings towards the focus of his affections. In this regard, the film is wholly successful and extremely moving. The final moments of the film could come off as supremely frustrating, but instead they are the key to the whole puzzle: these characters aren't interested in the people who catch their affection but in the thrill of the moment. Once the card is turned over, its spell is broken.