Saturday, January 7, 2012

LOVE EXPOSURE (2008; 2011 US release)

(Japan - 2008)  Written and directed by Sion Sono.  Cast: Takahiro Nishijima, Hikari Mitsushima, Sakura Ando, Makiko Watanabe, Atsuro Watabe.  237 mins.  Unrated.

Finally released in the US in 2011, Sion Sono's insanely ambitious, four-hour epic is pretty tough to describe. There's enough plot and tone shifts for at least six movies, but it's a testament to Sono's skills as a filmmaker that it never loses focus, never drags, and never once feels like it's as long as it is.

The complicated plot involves 17-year-old Yu (Takahiro Nishijima), who lost his mother at a young age, after which his distraught, grieving father Tetsu (Atsuro Watabe) joined the priesthood. Their tranquil, peaceful life is disrupted when party girl Kaori (Makiko Watanabe) turns her life around by joining the church...and promptly seduces the lonely Tetsu. Tetsu and Kaori have a secret relationship, but Kaori quickly dumps Tetsu for a younger man, sending the popular priest on a downward spiral. He begins psychologically abusing Yu, demanding that he confess sins he hasn't committed. This takes its toll on Yu, who falls in with the wrong crowd, and starts fighting and shoplifting, but finds his true calling is using ninja-like skills in the art of the under-the-skirt, "peek-a-panty" photography. This inadvertantly leads to Yu encountering Koike (Sakura Ando), an incest survivor who castrated her abusive father, and Yoko (Hikari Mitsushima), a girl with father issues of her own which have led her to hate all men.

It takes an hour for Sono to set up all of this (the title LOVE EXPOSURE doesn't even come up onscreen until about 57 minutes into the film), and over the next three hours, the lives of these five characters will intersect time and again in ways ranging from comedic to horrific to gut-wrenchingly emotional. This is a film of incredible ambition, with long stretches that have the distinct rhythms and kinetic pacing of Scorsese in GOODFELLAS mode. I also noticed a distinct De Palma vibe to some split-screen bits (but no split diopter), and the use of Ravel's "Bolero," which was so vital to De Palma's FEMME FATALE. But then it can quickly turn into a teen street gang picture, a deep meditation on religion, then a mistaken identity/cross-dressing comedy, then there might be some ninja action, then a raunchy teen comedy, then a suspenseful rescue thriller, and so on. But it all feels organic, never forced (well, some of the splatter is typical of extreme Japanese cinema). Each of the five stars are perfect in their roles, a standout being Ando as one of the most diabolical villains in recent memory.

Today's cinema doesn't get much more ambitiously ballsy than LOVE EXPOSURE, and the only way to really understand that is to set aside four hours and just immerse yourself in its universe. It captivates you fairly quickly and no plot recap written by me will do it justice. A masterpiece. The prolific Sono, whose most notable films include SUICIDE CLUB, STRANGE CIRCUS, EXTE: HAIR EXTENSIONS, and the recent COLD FISH, is probably the best thing going in Japanese cinema right now.

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