Sunday, August 7, 2011

Love Exposure (Sion Sono, 2008)

The warped Catholicism of Sion Sono's four-hour epic Love Exposure is fitting, given how the director clearly seeks to kill aesthetic gods. Known in some circles for referring to Japanese legend and humanist director extraordinaire Yasujiro Ozu as, quote, "the anti-Christ," Sono clearly wants to provoke and carve out his own name. On the basis of this film alone, he has succeeded. This film chews up everything — manga, pink films, J-horror, Ingmar Bergman, Luis Buñuel, the Japanese New Wave — and spits out an unholy mess so sloppy and overstretched that it can't help but work without a hitch. My unfamiliarity with modern Japanese cinema precludes me from making any sweeping statement about its greatness compared to its peers, but I must admit I haven't seen as aesthetically revolutionary and explosive a film since another Japanese work, Yoshishige Yoshida's Eros + Massacre.

Like Yoshida's stupefying masterpiece, Sono's film tells its story with an off-kilter aesthetic: de-centered compositions cant and distort the image, faces rarely fitting entirely into the frame. Sex is also central to the narrative, but in the opposite manner that it proved crucial to Yoshida's late-60s work. Eros + Massacre was informed by the sex-positive revolution against repression that played a bigger part in youth movements across the world than we are typically taught to day. Love Exposure, on the other hand, is the product of a porn-saturated, pink film-inured society where even the cartoons are doing it. If the bifurcated timeline of Yoshida's film hinged (and ultimately came apart) on the freedom to explore one's sexuality, Sono's shows a young man trying to find sense and sanity through chastity, at least until he can find his own Virgin Mary to make his wife. That he essentially wants to have sex with the Blessed Mother, who also contains symbolic memories of his own deceased mom, instantly plunges this tale of Catholic guilt beyond the realm of Scorsese and into Buñuel territory.

The mother is the film's only out and out decent, kind, fully lovable person, and she dies less than five minutes into this 237-minute feature. That leaves Yu Honda (J-pop singer Takahiro Nishijima) to grow up with only the memory of her devout Christianity to steer him on the right moral path. Still wracked with grief years after his wife's death, Yu's father, Tetsu (Atsuro Watabe), becomes a priest, but the contentment he finds in doing something his wife would have admired soon becomes chaos. The source of that storm is Kaori (Makiko Watanabe), a middle-aged woman so inspired and overwhelmed by Tetsu's sermons that she begs to be a Christian, her spiritual desire manifesting as physical attraction and plunging the man into confusion. To get out his own shame, he begins to ply Yu, still innocent as a teenager, to confess his sins, but the pure-as-the-driven-snow lad has none to confess. Yet so great is his sense of filial duty that Yu begins to act out solely to have something to confess to his father.

Soon, Yu has taken up with a ragtag gang of ruffians to engage in fights, vandalism and theft, and before long he's taken to upskirt photography so that he might have a sexual sin to confess, even though he does not get off on the task. At the hour mark, Yu, made to dress as a girl and kiss a lady in town by his friends, stumbles across Yoko (Hikari Mitsushima), a girl who prefaces a vicious beatdown of a threatening gang with a prayer that makes her into the Virgin Mary that Yu has always fantasized about. So after an hour's worth of establishment, compounded shame, incestuous fantasy and despairing sin, Sono finally reveals this to be, amazingly, a simple story about boy meets girl, a surprisingly chaste film that merely visualizes the frothing sexual desire at work on those who abstain from physical contact.

This is a dense web of guilt, repression, desire, satire and affecting drama, and we're still not even halfway through the first hour. From these manic yet condensed threads springs a story that will encompass such themes as upskirt photography (or "tosatsu"), castration, first erections,  the pornography industry, child abuse, and a cult that bears more than a minor resemblance to a certain author's giant tax shelter. The beginning of the film, which mostly careens around churches and religious icons, has stuffy lighting that is at once an ironic framing of holy light and an apt mood summary of the suffocating density of its character and thematic dynamics. But even when the film opens up into these larger ideas and moves through some bewildering sequences, it maintains the sense of intimate frenzy, always compacting the epic feel into the small scale.

Reflective of modern filmmaking, Love Exposure is rapidly edited and action-centric. When Yu's attempts to sin lead him to taking photos of women's panties, he learns from a sort of martial arts guru who teaches all kinds of athletic moves for hysterically unsubtle picture-taking techniques. In a flashback for another character, the psychopathic young woman Aya Koike (Sakura Ando), we see her exact revenge upon her abusive father via J-horror castration that somehow manages to never show the offending appendage outright even as it also never once cuts away. For what is, when stripped bare, a love story that wouldn't seem out of place in the average Sundance lineup, Love Exposure boasts such an aggressive style and such uncompromising extremity that the film becomes its own microcosmic innovation, fusing its narrative and aesthetic so fully that attempting to unpack the film requires almost endless summary.

Indeed, Love Exposure is one of those movies that is so odd and constantly upturning that it takes effort not to get caught simply relating what happens. I mean, how can the reviewer even hope to give an idea of the film if one analyzes certain aspects of the film without saying how one even gets to that moment? If I wish to focus on the unexpectedly pained and poignant scene between Yoko and Yu in a bus parked on a beach, I must quickly elide over Yu's kidnapping of the girl after she is brainwashed by Aya and after Yu becomes a pornographer and is recruited by the authorities to bring down the Zero Church. All these weird twists and turns, so unimportant to the ultimate "point" of the film yet so vital in expressing Sono's atmosphere, style and sense of humor, may all be ostensibly random as they unfold, yet they outlandish trials placed before Yu make his desperate confrontation all the more heartfelt, while Yoko's powerful retorts, which draw upon Bible verses and a vicious awareness of hypocrisy, sears all the more painfully because it serves as an intimate but overwhelming encapsulation of her previously shown misanthropy and undirected loathing. It is necessary to see all of Yu's farcical actions in the name of his faith and sense of morality so that Yoko's repudiation of Catholicism's own brand of brainwashing can shatter rather than merely sneer.

That scene, like the rest of the film, demonstrates Sono's skill in disorienting the simplest action and clarifying and contextualizing the extremities, a feat he could not pull off without assured performances. He places a great deal of faith on his three acting newcomers, and all of them perform exceptionally. Nishijima never plays Yu's innocence as ironic even when Sono is clearly wrenching out the inadvertent hypocrisies, contradictions and implications of that innocence. When he confesses his sins early in the film, Yu smiles broadly, his grin visible even through the confessional screen. Nishijima smiles in such a way that he makes clear he does so not sarcastically or even in relish of his sins; no, he's just so happy to be able to fulfill his duty to his father. Nishijima is prevented by the narrative from having any proper chemistry with Mitsushima but sells his love for Yoko so sincerely that his constant rejection by the confused and manipulated girl devastating. For her part, Mitsushima juggles the most emotions in the film, moving from tough-girl detachment to warm, self-discovering quasi-lesbian crush on Yu's cross-dressing alter-ego to mentally broken cult victim without losing her basic sense of character.

But it is Ando as the utterly insane villain Aya who steals the show. If Yu's entire arc is a thematic exploration of the effects of religious repression, Ando shows how the violence of religious abuse begets more broken, sociopathic individuals. Drawn to Yu by a recognition of his own brainwashing, Aya uses the seemingly infinite resources of the Zero Church to monitor his every move and begin sabotaging his life to force him to come to Aya. Ando's incessant schoolgirl smile and giggle is off from the start and downright terrifying by the end. She's so resolutely evil in every gesture, every gently forceful line of suggestive, manipulative dialogue and every sneer that one eventually forgets the depictions of her horrible adolescence and simply gives in to hating her with every fiber of one's being.

This is one of the most psychologically vicious portrayals of a villain I've ever seen, so powerful that Ando seems to un-moor from gravity after a time and float around the other characters like a mocking ghost passing through them, whispering to their subconscious rather than truly existing and interacting like a person. Where Nishijima is in deliberately dissonant conflict with the film and Mitsushima is swept along by its whims, Ando is the only one who is perfectly attuned with Sono's deconstructive and destructive style, and also the only one who seems to exert some form of control upon the frame, manipulating the camera as she messes with the minds of those inside the movie. Heath Ledger's Joker and Christoph Waltz's Hans Landa have deservedly won immense acclaim recently, but Ando, frankly, is on a whole other level. This is like Iago if he flat-out told Othello his intentions at the start and still managed to twist and mold everyone to his will. That sneering giggle has haunted more than one of my dreams since I watched the film but one week ago. Oh, and speaking of Waltz's Landa, one of his most unexpected, brilliant and sinister gestures was stabbing out a cigarette in a strudel. Ando douses her own in a puddle of blood.

The question that arises, even among those who eat their "cultural vegetables," for films of this length is "Does the film need to be this long?" to which I would say "Probably not" even as I argued for every second to be left unperturbed. Its seemingly unwieldy running length and bewildering narrative progression belies just how well it flows, and the space allows for the layering of jokes and subtlety where it might not exist crammed into a tidier movie. For example: Sono stresses that Yu's upskirt photos are not an outgrowth of any perversion on his part, yet when he catches a glimpse of Yoko's panties after she dispatches the gang, and at last he is truly turned on by what he sees, thus rooting the manifestation of perversion in true love, a suggestion Sono lets the audience work out. He also allows for such deepening of character as Kaori's visibly positive influence on Yoko when she becomes the girl's foster mother, the same wildness that was so overpowering at the start now seen as a stabilizing force in the out-of-control nihilist's life. But even then, she can turn on her daughter in the name of religion, responding to the confused Yoko's clearly suggestive moral questions on whether it's OK to be a lesbian with a casual bit of offense like, "Dykes are perverts. Watch out for them."

Of course, the size and scope of the film also allows for grandiose moments as well. The climax in the Zero Church headquarters is a bloodbath, complete with a hysterical editing rhythm that constantly juxtaposes Yu's frantic search for Yoko with shots of her and the other main characters in a room, creating the illusion that each time Yu opens a door he's finally found her, only to then show the boy still looking. And even Hitchcock might have admired the "oh come on" suggestion of Yu hiding an erection matched to a shot of a cross being erected, about as good a summary of the sexual-religious confusion of the film as one could hope to see.

In Yoko's establishing flashback, she watches old news footage on TV, black-and-white shots of what appear to be the 1968 youth riots that hit Japan just as they did in the United States, France and elsewhere. The moment suggests a kinship to that old ideological struggle captured in films like Eros + Massacre even as it also demonstrates the quaintness of the time compared to the over-saturated world of today. Love Exposure is a frenzy of desire, confusion, even ennui, a black comedy with genuine pain and longing not merely between teenagers exploring new feelings but adults trying to reignite love after years of isolation. After laughing and shouting along with Love Exposure for so long, I found myself enthralled by an ending I would have said the film did not earn had it not been such a vast work seemingly capable of anything. Sono's final shot is at once cheeky anticlimax and beautiful affirmation, a small gesture of affection that ends the film on a note of purity that counteracts so much of what came before even as it strengthens that material. It also confirmed that I'd just watched one of the great works of contemporary cinema.


  1. I've read what you have written , and I guess that will be a very interesting movie to see.

  2. Great post.

    I love this film.

    You compare it to Yoshida (I've not seen E+M) - I'd compare it to a sprawling medieval tale of romance, with Nishijima as some kind of hapless Lancelot in reverse - or Galahad, or Parzifal? - and the fulfilment of romantic love as some kind of holy grail. Sexual and religious love are intertwined and interchangeable, and the harder the characters try to separate them the harder it is to distinguish one from the other. The characters seem literally bewitched or under spells, and everything and everyone is the reverse of what they appears to be - Yu the pure at heart can't help but appear a pervert, Aya's smiles conceal the heart and mind of a psychopath. However, that's just my riff on things. I was gripped by this from beginning to end, all four plus, full-on, breakneck hours of it.

  3. One of the many reasons the film is so gripping is Sono's use of music...He uses familiar tunes ("Bolero" in the first half and I think switches to something else later on), but repeats them over and over - it's oddly compelling because everytime the music starts again you get pulled a bit deeper. I found he did the same thing in his recent "Cold Fish" (by using the old children's song "Frere Jacques") - an equally astonishing film, though very different and not for the squeamish.

    After seeing "Strange Circus" and "Noriko's Dinner Table", he's become one of my favourite currently working directors. I'm crossing my fingers his latest pops up at TIFF.

  4. The music struck me too, but I always need a rewatch when it comes to music and I have no intention of not following this review up with another piece. I don't think it's possibly to fully nail this movie in one go. I imagine I'll return after watching more Sono films (I was looking forward to "Cold Fish" before I even knew he was the same director who made this).

  5. Would the film be easier to take in a more condensed form? Of course it would, but then it wouldn't be the singularly overwhelming oddity that it is.