Masahiro Kobayashi’s third feature is dedicated to French director Jean-Pierre Melville, whose film “The Samurai” inventively attached the code of the Japanese sword-for-hire outsider to modern film noir (something Jim Jarmusch also rather playfully attempted in last year’s “Ghost Dog”). But Kobayashi’s devotion to Melville, and to the noir genre, doesn’t make this sterile exercise in contemporary alienation interesting or exciting. Beautifully photographed, “Film Noir” starts with an intriguing premise but doesn’t seem to know what to do with it. Outside of festivals, this faces a lingering extinction.
In Japan’s snowbound north, a man (Ryo Ishibashi) has been laid off by the firm he worked for all his life, but he hasn’t yet told his wife (Nene Otsuka), who is still sending their dwindling funds to help support their student daughter in Colorado. Each day, the man drives off, supposedly to work, but instead goes to the next village and whiles away the day in a panchinko parlor, playing endless games.
One day, he’s approached by a stranger (Ken Ogata) who offers him new employment — as a contract killer. He refuses at first, but the stranger is persistent, the pay is good, and eventually the man agrees.
After his first (offscreen) execution, he feels better. For the first time in a long while he enjoys mutually good sex with his wife, and he’s on top of the world. He looks forward to further assignments, and for a while they’re forthcoming. But, inevitably, there’s trouble ahead.
Aided immeasurably by Akira Sakoh’s crisp, precise, classical framing, and by Ishibashi’s amusing portrayal of an ordinary man who takes to murder with glee, the film works well for a while. But it soon becomes clear that no satisfactory resolution is in the offing, and the one Kobayashi comes up with is not only predictable but banal. Though much is made of the beautiful wintry settings, there’s almost nothing here of the ingredients of real film noir, and the killings are matter-of-factly handled.
Oddly, the only direct reference to a Melville film in “Film Noir” comes when the protagonist is seen to have a videotape of “The Shadow Army,” which was not a film noir but a movie about the French resistance. A tape of Jacques Becker’s “The Hole” is also glimpsed. Technically, pic is top-drawer in every department.