by 
Drew Hunt

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Drew Hunt Retrospective Film

The Virgin Psychics | Sion Sono

September 1, 2016
Virgin 2

Sion Sono’s The Virgin Psychics is one strange movie, though not for the reasons his films are usually strange. True to its title, this high-concept comedy about a group of virgins who are bestowed fantastical abilities mixes the supernatural with frank illustrations of sex and desire, and while it features a number of crude and off-color gags, the tone is so lighthearted and inclusive that it ranks among the director’s least aggressive films. Like a screwball comedy director working in classic Hollywood, Sono understands that the key to a good sex joke isn’t shock value but showmanship. An array of deliberately exaggerated performances, a staple of Sono films in any genre or style, hammer home the story’s goofy and almost bashful nature, giving some of the more outsized and potentially bothersome gags—a buxom police medium sees the future of any person who stares at her breasts; a high school jock teleports into the girls’ locker room—an air of innocence. The dialogue and situations may be dirty, but actual sex and nudity is noticeably scarce. Instead, Sono derides the unique and unfair burdens of virginity while holding up the seemingly outdated importance Japanese society places on purity and virtue. Basically John Waters meets The Avengers, The Virgin Psychics gleefully mocks good taste while retaining a noble, almost conservative core.

Basically John Waters meets The Avengers.

A feature-length adaptation of Sono’s own 12-part TV miniseries, itself adapted from a manga written by Kiminori Wakasugi, the film begins with a lengthy sequence in which our nerdy protagonist, Yoshiro (Shota Sometani), flips through a mental rolodex of attractive women that he knows, in search of masturbation material—a nightly ritual that happens to coincide with a cosmic occurrence that gives him and a group of similarly emotionally unfulfilled virgins telepathic powers, enabling them to perform various feats, including versions of their own souped-up sex fantasies. Yoshiro and crew are also able to detect the desires of others, and so they find themselves attuned to every lustful thought that surrounds them. From there, Sono pivots on a number of narrative digressions and plot twists, the majority of which exist solely to stretch out a joke or gag of some kind; your ability to withstand the film may hinge on how much of the relentlessly silly and structurally anarchic plot you can handle. The central conflict is represented by the team’s attempt to thwart a group of “evil psychics” from wiping out humanity while using sex as a weapon. But the overall objective remains muddled—the heroes are either trying to push the world into an outright orgy or a puritanical state, it’s never clear which. The push and pull between sex as an aspiration and sex as a destructive tool cements the films ideas of virtue. Its most telling element involves Yoshiro’s attempts to find his true love, a girl he fell for before they were even born, when they were both in their mothers’ womb. It’s a romantic notion, and the fact that it exists in a film otherwise full of dripping-wet cleavage and relentless erection jokes is an example of paradox unique to Sono. He understands the appeal of both sides, but doesn’t fully align himself with either, choosing instead to mark the details of sex as it exists across all plains. These insights, coupled with the director’s usual stylistic irreverence and some surprisingly cathartic bits of humor, give The Virgin Psychics a thematic nuance that belies the brazen and patently stupid nature of its premise. In other words: textbook Sono.

This film has yet to be theatrically released in the U.S.

Part of Sion Sono: Love Leaves Destruction in Its Wake.

by 
Drew Hunt Retrospective Film

Himizu | Sion Sono

August 25, 2016
Himizu

Sion Sono’s near-masterpiece Himizu takes place in the shadow of the 2011 Tohoku earthquake and tsunami and ensuing Fukushima Daiichi nuclear meltdown, the largest such event since Chernobyl in 1986. The disaster left the surrounding area and national psyche ravaged, but if we’re to believe the film’s pessimistic view of Japanese society, Fukushima Daiichi wasn’t the only toxic thing about contemporary Japan. An unabashedly gloomy coming-of-age tale, Himizu turns a scornful eye toward a culture that promotes individualism while simultaneously hindering it, all while making bracing visual allusions to the widespread destruction of the Tohoku earthquake. Residing in a shoddy lakeside shack with his neglectful mother, 14-year-old Sumida (Shota Sometani) runs his family’s boat-rental business alongside a colorful group of squatters living nearby, in a makeshift shantytown. Scenes that feature Sumida and his chums kicking back and shooting the shit play like something out of Judd Apatow, affable in their relaxed air and congenial character interplay. These visits are often interrupted by Sumida’s alcoholic, sociopathic father, who returns to the shack only to take some money and knock his son around, disparaging him with a barrage of unbelievably cruel comments.

Abrupt shifts from tender comedy to jarring violence are found throughout Himizu, which dexterously balances an array of tones. The would-be meet cute between Sumida and the doting Keiko (Fumi Nikaido, the film’s best performance) starts out sweet before turning hostile. In Sono’s hands, quicksilver mood swings barely register, but nevertheless deliver a heavy blow. Violence is prevalent throughout Himizu, and becomes a byproduct of the narrative and characterizations; its presence is always alarming, even as it’s carried out by the characters in the most banal ways imaginable. As the story grows increasingly intense—one of Sumida’s cronies, the elderly and sweet-hearted Yoruno (Tetsu Watanabe), robs an affluent neo-Nazi to help pay a debt Sumida’s dad owes to the Yakuza, the ramifications of which send both characters into a nihilistic spiral—so too does the violence. Rather than offering up empty shock value, however, the brutality feels suitable, even logical, a disarmingly experiential ploy that implicates the audience in its acceptance of violent images.

Himizu turns a scornful eye toward a culture that promotes individualism while simultaneously hindering it.

Lest that make the film sound like some sort of Haneke-esque parlor game, Himizu’s concerns are ultimately sociocultural. Before everything goes haywire, Sumida desires a life of isolation, desperate to avoid the seemingly inevitable turmoil that accompanies intimate relationships and nuclear families. He openly rebukes notions of individualism and Japanese exceptionalism as posited by his gung-ho schoolteacher, who believes so thoroughly that each person is a “unique flower” that he demands the class repeat it, in unison, effectively negating the individualistic sentiment. Sumida’s response: “Ordinary is best.”

Except when it isn’t. Indeed, a sense of identity eludes Sumida and each of the characters here in one way or another. The final lines of a poem by Francois Villon are repeated throughout the film: “I know flies in milk. Specks against white. I know who labors and who loafs. I know pink cheeks from wan. I know death, who devours all. I know all save myself.” This refrain becomes a veritable mantra for Sono’s characters, and a sort of unofficial slogan for Japan itself, a nation which appears here to be in an alternate state of transition and turmoil. A general sense of menace presides over the second half of Himizu, in which knife-toting men seem to roam the land with impudence. After attempting to murder a busking guitar player, one of these presumed maniacs asks “Who am I?” And that’s the overriding question for a society whose violent tendencies and sense of uncertainty can be traced back, as the school teacher interestingly notes, to World War II. (Suddenly, the strange presence of the aforementioned Nazi sympathizer makes more sense.) In the wake of a national crisis, the question of “Who am I?” becomes more pressing than ever, and Sono’s response can be found in the reiterated shots of tsunami-inflicted rubble: a chance at redemption lying among the ruins.

Part of Sion Sono: Love Leaves Destruction in Its Wake.

by 
Drew Hunt Retrospective Film

Strange Circus | Sion Sono

August 17, 2016
Strange Circus2

Pull any Sion Sono movie off the shelf and chances are somebody somewhere has called it his “most extreme.” With a filmography as pervasively perverse and profane as Sono’s, one could place such a distinction on almost any title and probably be correct in saying so. But there’s something uniquely twisted about the feverish Strange Circus, Sono’s 2005 exercise in ero-guro, a Japanese art style that trades in sexual depravity and violence. The word itself is a wasei-eigo, a Japanese combination of abbreviated English words: ero from “erotic” and “guro” from grotesque. Similarly, Strange Circus is a collision, a wild blend of the utterly obscene and the undeniably beautiful. Incest, rape, pedophilia, and self-mutilation are just a few of the taboo bases it covers, while at the same time exploring the very specific ideas of emotional transference and psychological displacement, innately spiritual procedures whose effects occasionally, in the most extreme of cases—there’s that phrase again—result in physical transformation. True to form, Sono’s depiction of this transformation is an act of bloodletting full of gore and cruelty; there’s also poetic use of Debussy and Franz Liszt, as well as some of the most elegant direction we’ve yet seen from the filmmaker. But that’s the thing with Sono: His art trumps his impulses.

Wanders from one nightmare to the next, taking daring leaps between time and space.

“When dad first molested me, that was the beginning of the end.” So begins the story of 12-year-old Mitsuko (Mai Takahashi), whose incestuous father (Hiroshi Ohguchi) dominates her life. In addition to being her guardian and abuser, he’s also the principal of her school, and it’s in his office where Mitsuko’s first molested. He modifies a cello case by drilling a peephole near the top and locks his daughter inside, where she’s forced to watch him have rough sex with her mother (Masumi Miyazaki), who is then placed in the cello herself and made to watch as her husband rapes their daughter. This decidedly disturbing scenario sets the stage for a personal saga that finds Mitsuko questioning the very idea of herself. “Mom and I looked exactly alike. I was her, and she was me,” she says, claiming that the first time she sees her parents have sex, it’s as if she’s having sex, too. Her mental lines are blurred, reflected in Sono’s hallucinatory treatment of reality. The movie wanders from one nightmare to the next, taking daring leaps between time and space while exploring Mitsuko’s fractured psyche. The film even seems to jump to another universe altogether: An erotic-fiction writer (Miyazaki) is writing a new novel seemingly based on Mitsuko’s life. Her murky past, as well as the identity of her assistant (Isseu Ishida), give the film the closest thing it has to a conventional plot line, but resolution is ever scarce. Strange Circus posits violence; quickly and thoroughly abstracts it; then forces it back into a space that seems neither real nor fake, both aggressively alive and slowly decaying. Sono shows us the unique ways violence and abuse transform life into myth, and how the whole thing feels, strangely, like a circus.

Part of Sion Sono: Love Leaves Destruction in Its Wake.

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Drew Hunt Current Film

Winter Sleep | Nuri Bilge Ceylan

December 19, 2014
086467 - © NURI BILGE CEYLAN.jpg

Nuri Bilge Ceylan’s Winter Sleep opens on the smoldering aftermath of a brushfire, gray smoke rising off the charred earth as the wind blows and birds coo in the background. It’s a serene and beautiful image, and knowing Ceylan, one expects it to linger a while, considering his obsession with long, static takes. But after a few seconds, before we’ve really had a chance to ponder what he’s showing us, he cuts to a different image, a wide shot of man standing on a rocky path. We hear the same birds Continue Reading

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Drew Hunt Current Film

A Spell to Ward Off the Darkness | Ben Rivers & Ben Russell

December 5, 2014
spelltowarddarkness

Noted experimental filmmakers Ben Rivers and Ben Russell have a lot more in common besides sharing a first name. Their respective oeuvres are filled with stylistically unique but philosophically parallel attempts at a new sort of ethnographic filmmaking. Their films consider both the impenetrability of personal experience and the transcendent possibilities of a shared experience, mining a phenomenological cross-section of bodies in space and minds in motion that’s resistant to presumptive language. Continue Reading

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Drew Hunt Current Film

Horns | Alexandre Aja

October 31, 2014
horns

Alexandre Aja is an exhausting filmmaker. The director, whose ultraviolent, viscerally gory High Tension stands as one of the most notorious films in the infamous New French Extremity canon, has a maximalist style, a sort of throw-everything-at-the-wall-and-hope-something-sticks approach that yields twice as many miscues for every moment of batshit brilliance. Chaotic as they are, his films, particularly Continue Reading

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Drew Hunt Current Film

Men, Women & Children | Jason Reitman

October 3, 2014
men-women-children

Jason Reitman’s latest Oscar shill, the formally inert and thematically overconfident Men, Women & Children, aspires to illustrate how humans — horny high school students and their horny parents, specifically — interact in this new technological world of ours. The characters are all but glued to the computers and handheld devices they use to text, tweet, and instant-message each other all the sordid, depraved and depressing things they don’t dare speak aloud. Digitally composed text fields — basically the 21st-century equivalent Continue Reading

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Drew Hunt Current Film

The Zero Theorem | Terry Gilliam

September 19, 2014
zero-theorem

Whether or not you like Terry Gilliam’s films, you have to feel some kind of affinity for the man himself, what with his dogged determination in the face of projects both woefully unrealized (The Man Who Killed Don Quixote) and tragically unlucky (2009’s The Imaginarium of Dr. Parnassus). He tests this affinity, though, with films that are difficult to admire, not for their controversial ideas or aesthetic rigor, but for their showy whimsicality and muddled, store-bought philosophies. His latest, the Continue Reading

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Drew Hunt Current Film

Memphis | Tim Sutton

September 5, 2014
memphis

Vividly shot in the titular city, Memphis is the sophomore film from Tim Sutton, writer-director of the digressive, virtually plotless coming-of-age film Pavilion, whose lush pictorialism owes more to European traditions than typical American-independent styles. Though significantly more conventional by comparison, Memphis shares with Pavilion an austere sense of lyricism and form-bending aesthetics. It is also anchored by a strong performance by Continue Reading