This is the part where I reach my hand through your computer screen while you’re reading this to tug on your shirtsleeve about one of the most exhilarating films I’ve seen in quite a few years, and, with a note of urgency, inform you that Chicagoans will only have four chances to see it. Oh, it may show up on IFC once or twice a year, and maybe you’ll find it on Netflix eventually, but this is one of those events that you want to make a night of; a four-hour movie (that feels like an hour-and-a-half) in a real-live big-screen movie theater – with an intermission – remember those? – that you’ll be thinking and talking about for weeks afterward.
The film is Sion Sono’s Love Exposure (Ai no mukidashi) (Japan, 2008). Sono is most known for ‘Asia Extreme’ psychological horror titles like ‘Suicide Club,’ ‘Noriko’s Dinner Party,’ and ‘Strange Circus.’ But this film backs off from overt blood-guts-and-sex button-pushing to deliver something far more expansive, far more profound. It uses lots of popular-culture tools and references – it’s foundational framework is Japanese Otaku culture, that amalgam of pinky violence, childlike ‘Hello Kitty’ iconography, manga serials, anime surrealism, cosplay fashion, fanboy devotion, and the hyper-connectedness of cyberspace. I say framework because Sono is so tuned in to the obsessive mentality and zeitgeist of Otaku that he sees no need to use the actual signifiers of the culture, i.e. no crazy costumes, no animation, no computer geekage, no actual fantasy elements of any kind. But this world is up-to-the-second modern – there isn’t a kimono or tatami mat in sight. The plot actually ends up being closer to a Victorian revenge tragedy or medieval morality play than anything involving robots, yakuza or samurai, but the morally chequered pasts of our protagonists result in decidedly 21st century pathologies, and it’s these demons that they do battle with.
Oh, the plot…I guess I’ll take a stab, but The Plot Is Not The Story in the same way The Map Is Not The Territory. Yu Honda is an attentive and loving child whose Catholic mother confides that she’ll soon be ‘going on a long trip.’ After her too-soon passing, the grief-stricken father devotes himself to the priesthood, and he and the now teenaged Yu (Takahiro Nishijima) take up residence in the rectory of Father Tetsu’s (Atsuro Watabe) new parish church. Things go well until one fateful day, when the psychotically-needy Keiko (Yuko Genkaku) arrives at the church from out of the blue, howling with existential despair and obsessively clutching for redemption from Tetsu. He is, at first, repelled, but eventually perseveres to help Keiko piece together some semblance of self-esteem and balance. One thing leads to another, and Tetsu takes a second apartment to conceal his relationship with Keiko from the other parishioners. But the willful Keiko is resentful of being hidden away, and she storms out in a fury months later. This second abandonment is too much for Tetsu – obsessing over his own sinful failings, incapable of forgiving himself, he makes Yu’s life miserable. Yu must confess his sins to the stern, joyless Tetsu every single day, whether he’s actually committed any or not. Over time, despite his basic nature, Yu starts making efforts to sin up to Dad’s ‘standards,’ first shedding his reflexive good manners, then stepping on helpless ants, then taking up with a gang of neighborhood toughs in petty crimes, and eventually becoming the King of Tosatsu – voyeuristic peek-a-panty upskirt photography (none of Yu’s sinning gets a real rise out of Father Tetsu until it starts involving sex – pornography infuriates the priest, and Yu appreciates the escalation of anger and corporal violence it induces in his otherwise Stepford-like father). But Yu is far more interested in the reaction evoked than the subject itself – he’s sworn to have no real interaction with the fairer sex until he finds the Madonna-like ideal, his Maria, he promised his mother, years ago, that he would hold out for. On one rainy night, he’s caught snapping twixt-the-nethers of three schoolgirls, who turn on him, but when he explains the nature of his caught-red-handed activity – the photos aren’t about sex, they’re about sin – the leader of the three, intrigued, lets him off the hook, and they let him go. But these are no ordinary schoolgirls; they are emissaries of the hyper-cultish Zero Church, and their leader, the seemingly-forgiving Aye Koike (Sakura Ando), turns out to be one of the most manipulatively, psychologically, psychotically evil characters I’ve encountered in any fictional form in quite a long time.
Yu loses a crucial bet with one of his hormone-driven cohorts-in-crime, and his loss means he must dress in drag in public and kiss the first attractive girl he sees. He’s horrified that the first girl he kisses won’t be His Maria, but the bet’s the bet. In a long black overcoat, long brunette wig and fashionable floppy hat, Yu actually makes a fetching female, whom he jokingly names Miss Scorpion. Meanwhile, Aye, who has obsessively (there’s that word again) researched Yu’s family history, decides to do a little malicious matchmaking. Unknown to Yu, Keiko has returned, and is working herself back into Father Tetsu’s good graces. Aye also knows that, this time, Keiko has her adopted daughter with her, the fetching, devoutly Catholic but man-hating Yoko (Hikari Mitsushima). Aye has hired a gang of thugs to menace Yoko, timing the arrival of said thugs to coincide with Yu’s entrance into the square. Yoko is tough, and is looking forward to kicking the asses of these mouth-breathers. But, first, she drops to her knees and prays forgiveness from Jesus for the violence she’s about to inflict. And Yu sees his Maria. That’s her. That’s the miracle he’s been waiting for. He’s smitten. And so is Yoko; but not with Yu. She’s smitten with Miss Scorpion. After dispatching the thugs with her and planting a heroic (or heroine-ic, if you will) kiss, Yu flees in euphoric abandon.
Will Yu continue his sordid career in upskirt photography, now that he’s met the love of his life? Will he reconcile Father Tetsu’s decision to quit the priesthood to marry the unstable Keiko, and accept Yoko as his stepsister? Can Yoko reconcile her blasphemous lesbian love for Miss Scorpion? And how will it ever be revealed that Miss Scorpion is actually Yu? And what will ensue in Aye’s quest to convert the entire family to the Zero Church? Well, Sono gives himself, and us, plenty of time to watch it all unfold, because what I’ve described is only the first one-third of this tour-de-force.
Sono juggles torturously pious moral melodrama with uproarious hipster farce with Shakespearean gender comedy with Tarantino-like ‘Grindhouse’ tawdriness with dark religious-cult hysteria and Russ Meyer boner jokes and it all works together. The film includes some of the funniest, and saddest, scenarios I’ve seen in the last few years. His real subject, of course, is love, its limits and its boundlessness, its pure representations and the distorting social and moral ‘institutions’ that we beat hell out of it with. Yu and Yoko hear all about ‘Renaissance humanism’ in their high-school class, but there’s nothing in their lives, or the culture they’re in, that supports that quaint, outmoded way of thinking. Extremities of every flavor compete for day-to-day quotidian airtime. But they’ve had the Bible drilled into them; in fact, at one climactic moment, Yoko recites the entirety of 1 Corinthians 13 from memory, practically spitting it in Yu’s face. It’s just that kind of movie; schoolgirl porn and religious extremism intermingle with bone-deep faith in our basic humanity, and, again, it all works. And I defy you to discover comparable, better American performances this year than Takahiro Nishijima’s Yu or, especially, Hikari Mitsushima’s Yoko.
Despite its length, it’s pretty apparent that Sono has performed Spike Lee-type miracles of efficiency under a less-than-lavish budget. But his compensating invention never flags. Despite the urban-Japan veneer of elaborate locations and endless supernumeraries, Sono’s visual narrative never wastes a second or a shot, and Jun’ichi Ito’s patient-but-propulsive editing of Sohei Tanikawa’s multi-stock photography is masterful. Most Hollywood blockbusters could use a guy like Ito. Sono’s other excellent decision involves using well-chosen music for well-placed consolidation of a lot of different activities. Seemingly conservative choices like Ravel’s ‘Bolero’ or Beethoven’s Allegretto from the 7th Symphony, for uncharacteristically long stretches, serve to tie in and ground a lot of sequences, aurally reinforcing the long narrative view of the many storytelling balls Sono has in the air, and the timeless classicism of the moral stakes at play. And music fans will be scouring online sites for that infectious and insistent Yura Yura Teikoku song that Sono uses so frequently.
This is exactly the kind of astonishing maverick filmmaking that places like the Landmark Century and the Music Box should be knocking themselves out to screen. But, according to the interwebs, St. Charles, Illinois’ own tiny Olive Films is the only distributor taking a shot – two-and-a-half years after packed houses in Japan. It’s not all that racy – there’s no nudity, and the two or three instances of violence, while jarring, aren’t nearly as gratuitous as what you’ll find in most Asian imports. That four-hours-with-subtitles deal is what has dissuaded larger American distributors from investing in U.S. showings. They don’t give you much credit, and that’s a brutal shame. So the always-admirable Siskel Film Center has taken up the job, and they’re doing us a massive solid by screening this wonderful film. Return the favor by leaving your living rooms and supporting them for these showings. It’s the best film I’ve seen in years.
‘Love Exposure’ screens at the Siskel Film Center Saturday, July 9th at 7:15 P.M., Sunday the 10th at 3:00 P.M., and Monday the 11th and Wednesday the 13th at 6:15 P.M.