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In Japan, where the establishment seems to have rotted from within, the leading populists are television comedians. In recent elections, both Tokyo and Osaka elected veteran TV comics as mayors, and comedian Takeshi Kitano is widely considered the country’s most popular TV personality. That renown has yet to adhere to Kitano’s other career as a filmmaker, but with Fireworks, his seventh film, he’s finally getting commercial distribution in the U.S. And this example of the director’s astonishingly singular style is being followed into American theaters by its 1993 predecessor, Sonatine.

Shown recently at the Hirshhorn under its original title, Hana-Bi, Fireworks offers a characteristically Japanese mixture of brutality, slapstick, sentimentality, and contemplation. Kitano, the film’s editor as well as its director, writer, and star, juxtaposes flashbacks to a violent shootout in a Tokyo shopping arcade with elementary sight (and audio) gags and a zen sanctity for nature. The comedian’s instincts usually triumph, though: In one scene, ex-cop Nishi (Kitano) slips and falls into a zen garden, destroying the austere pattern of raked sand. It’s a moment of comic relief, but it’s also a metaphor for Kitano’s irreverence for Japanese pieties.

The story is simple, although complicated by the fragmented order in which Kitano presents it. Cool, laconic Nishi is a veteran police detective whose wife Miyuki (Kayoko Kishimoto) is dying, apparently of leukemia. (In Japan, cancer is an even more unspeakable topic than it is in the U.S.) Feeling responsible for a botched arrest that left his partner Horibe (Ren Osugi) paralyzed and a young officer dead, Nishi quits the force. Deeply in debt to the mob, he works for a time as a gangster’s bodyguard. Then Nishi’s told by Miyuki’s doctor that he should take her on a trip, so he methodically stages a bold bank robbery, and the two head into the countryside. Anyone who gets in the way is matter-of-factly dispatched.

Told in short, staccato scenes, this tale is intercut with various asides, from playful sequences of Nishi and Miyuki’s vacation to the odd animal-flower hybrid paintings executed by the despairing Horibe after Nishi sends him some art supplies. (The artworks are, of course, actually by Kitano.) The director can blithely contrast a scene in which Nishi puts out a gangster’s eye with a chopstick with one in which Miyuki slyly claims both the desserts her husband has bought for them. Bloody corpses alternate with happy ghosts, and savage murder foreshadows serene suicide. In its attitude toward death, Fireworks is almost a samurai movie.

Kitano’s cinematic dexterity is dazzling, and the film is worth seeing simply for its deft edits and assured visual storytelling. (Dialogue plays a minor role in the exposition.) Even John Woo fans, though, may have trouble identifying with Kitano’s blend of sentiment, sensation, and cruel humor. (Miyuki gets one of her biggest laughs when the eponymous fireworks nearly explode in her husband’s face.) But then it seems likely that the director doesn’t really expect anyone to identify with the film, at least not for long. Leaving the crowd-pleasing stuff for his TV audience, Kitano ends Fireworks with an off-camera, seaside cataclysm that echoes Godard’s Pierrot le Fou.

Back home in Holland, Mike van Diem’s Character was denounced as the sort of movie that wins the foreign-film Oscar, even before it did. Actually, though, it isn’t. Van Diem does display a taste for Hollywood grandiosity, but most foreign-film Oscars go to pictures that are smaller in scale and more sentimental in outlook. Set in the brutal free-market Rotterdam of the ’20s, Character is as big, blustering, and chilly as the thunderstorms that frequently cue its critical scenes.

The film was adapted from Ferdinand Bordewijk’s 1938 novel by van Diem, a TV director making his feature debut, and is operatic in its staging, Dickensian in its details, and Bergmanesque in its psychology. Despite Paleis van Boem’s melodramatic score and cinematographer Rogier Stoffers’s grand compositions, this is principally the tale of three crabbed, tiny souls: Taciturn Joba Katadreuffe (Betty Schuurman), a housemaid who leaves the employ of cruel bailiff Dreverhaven (Jan Decleir) after he rapes her, and the child that results from that brief union. In their way, both Joba and Dreverhaven are interested in the fortunes of their son Jacob (as an adult played by Fedja Van Huet, a Robert Downey Jr. lookalike). They have a funny way of showing it, though, so it’s no surprise that Jacob grows up to be as emotionally inexpressive as his cold parents. (“I took a sacred vow never to lose control again,” he recalls after pummeling a boyhood classmate who called him a bastard.) Jacob achieves one of his passions—becoming a lawyer—-but can never bring himself to declare his love to co-worker Lorna (Tamar van den Dop), who finally gives up and marries another.

Told almost entirely in flashback, the film opens on the day Jacob qualifies as a lawyer. This accomplishment gives the young man the courage to confront his father, whose office in a vast, shadowy warehouse allows van Diem the sort of dramatic camera setups that characterize his style. Soon, Dreverhaven’s body is found, and Jacob is dragged into the police station for a vicious interrogation. (This is the sort of movie in which no one asks a simple question when a fevered accusation will do.) Jacob gradually recounts the story of his life, which pits his mulelike determination against the severe machinations of his father and Dutch society in general. Dreverhaven is a monster, but, as the fearless bailiff who delights in evicting impoverished tenants, he’s also the agent of the Rotterdam elite that Jacob too serves in his law-firm job.

This scenario makes the movie seem a little dated, but not in the genteel manner of current British costume dramas. While the determinist psychology is pat and the Oedipal conflict blatant, the politics are bracing. Finally, this is as much a fable of social as family dysfunction. If the film’s camera angles are dramatic, its sounds overamplified, and its emotions heightened, that’s appropriate to the genre: Character is a capitalist horror movie.

Reservoir Dogs on spring break, Suicide Kings is yet another kidnapping-gone-wrong flick. The principal difference is that the inept young thugs have a reason to be inept: They’re not gangsters but preppies. Still, considering how much Josh McKinney, Gina Goldman, and Wayne Rice’s script owes to other recent neo-noirs, you’d think the kids would know better. Didn’t any of these guys see Things to Do in Denver When You’re Dead?

Suicide Kings is not quite so noxious as that particular predecessor, although everything from its Seven-style degraded-type credits to its overcontrived plot is shopworn. Like Denver, this film features an ominous Christopher Walken stuck in a chair. This time, he’s former mobster Charlie Barrett (ne Carlo Bartolucci), and it’s not a wheelchair. He’s taped to his seat in a mansion in a New York suburb. His captors are Avery (Henry Thomas), whose sister Elise (Laura Harris) has been kidnapped, and Avery’s three pals: would-be tough guy Brett (Jay Mohr), junkie would-be doctor T.K. (Jeremy Sisto), and Max (Sean Patrick Flanery), who’s Elise’s boyfriend. They’re soon joined by Ira (Johnny Galecki), whose parents own the house. Ira is a nebbishy whiner, but he’s right about one thing: His friends should never have kidnapped Charlie.

The preppies think that Charlie has the kind of contacts that will enable them to free Elise. They’re right: Charlie calls Lono (Denis Leary), a cool, chivalrous, but pitiless enforcer with a Tarantinolike line of patter about his new stingray boots. Lono quickly discovers who the kidnappers are, as well as one other interesting fact: that one of Charlie’s abductors may be an “inside player” in Elise’s kidnapping. If so, of course, Charlie and Lono will probably not let the guy off with a warning.

Suicide Kings is a variety of poker, and the film’s principal event is the contest of bids and bluffs between Charlie and his captors. In addition to holding down costs by restricting most of the action to one location, this is an effective unifying device for director Peter O’Fallon, another TV veteran making his first feature. As Charlie and the preps get to know each other, it turns out that several of them have significant gambling debts. The real motivation for the kidnapping, though, may be something even more pernicious than college basketball. Let’s just say that the real moral of this almost female-free parable is: Girls are trouble.CP