by Sean Gilman

by Sean Gilman Retrospective Film

Love Exposure | Sion Sono

August 22, 2016
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Sion Sono’s Love Exposure is an epic, four-hour romantic comedy about terrible fathers, upskirt photography, Catholicism, and the meaning of love. Where Sono’s Bicycle Sighs could be categorized as a fairly typical minimalist art film, and his Suicide Club firmly entrenched itself in the millennial wave of Japanese horror, Love Exposure is much less easy to peg—a wholly original pop construct springing forth from its auteur’s cracked heart. If the film has a stylistic precursor at all, it’s the freewheeling exuberance of ’70s exploitation cinema: the camera rushes in and out of handheld frames, through mass karate fights and arterial sprays, and a lurid glee comes from moviemaking’s simulacra of violence.

Uneasily backdropping all the slashed throats and broken members, however, is a fundamentally sweet story of love between highly damaged youths, and of a generation inventing romance on its own terms in the wake of a patriarchal control that, with its selfishness and cruelty, has drained life of meaning. The film’s four-hour plot has too many twists and turns to coherently recount, but it revolves around Yu (Takahiro Nishijima), a young Catholic whose preacher father drives him into, first, a gang, and then, the secret art of taking panty pictures. Yu loves Yoko (Hikari Mitsushima), who leaves her abusive father to live with Kaori (Makiko Watanabe), the woman Yu’s father loves. Yoko loves Miss Scorpion, who she doesn’t know is actually Yu in drag. Skulking in the margins is Koike (Sakura Andô), another victim of an abusive father–and also a murderous drug dealer who runs a cult based on Christianity, but with a lot more kidnapping—who maybe loves Yu.

A fundamentally sweet story of love between highly damaged youths, and of a generation inventing romance on its own terms in the wake of patriarchal control.

Love Exposure‘s off-beat construction—hour-long first chapter, two half-hour ones, a 90-minute fourth chapter, and a long epilogue—mirrors its winding narrative, and its unexpected rhythms. Its tone resembles Hal Hartley’s Henry Fool: Sono creates a world ever so slightly out of step from our own, but one that somehow seems recognizable nonetheless. Love Exposure brings out the funkiness in Bolero and features the Second Movement of Beethoven’s Seventh, allowing both pieces to linger in the film’s soundtrack, while panty photos are taken with kung fu acrobatics, propelling the narrative for longer than any sane human would think advisable. In this world, the Catholic Church is corrupt, ineffective, and cruel, while its rival, Zero Church, brainwashes its victims into a white-walled fantasy of domestic happiness. But the purest expression of meaning is an angry, anguished recitation of Corinthians 13. In that famous passage is the core of romance our heroes carve out for themselves: after burning down every institution that corrupts and obscures, the clanging cymbals of selfish desire, after exposing all their own deceptions and disguises and imperfections, two hands clasp with faith, hope and love.

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

by Sean Gilman Retrospective Film

Suicide Club | Sion Sono

August 15, 2016
Suicide Club

Suicide Club opens with a montage of the city at night: documentary realist footage of pedestrians moving through Tokyo, on and off of trains and through stations, is scored to a peppy martial beat. Then, in a dreadful instant, the familiar tropes of the city symphony turn to horror as 54 teenaged girls leap, in unison, from a subway platform and in front of an on-coming train—leading to a cataclysm of squished heads and blood-spray. This is how Sion Sono begins his first major film: after more than a decade of partially successful experiments, he fashions a unique and uneasy blend of psychological realism and exploitation. Suicide Club is a serious exploration of the psychoses of modern society, punctured by a black absurdity; it’s a delicate balancing act, interrogating humanity’s darkest urges while celebrating the joy of primal cinematic sensationalism. That opening is followed by a textbook suspense sequence: disappearing nurses and a befuddled night watchman, tension built solely with darkness and sound, as skillfully crafted as any paranormal tale. Then Sono switches gears into a detective story: a handful of police investigate a series of possibly connected suicides, including the young girls’ jump.

The cops are aided by an anonymous hacker, who hints at a website apparently connected to the deaths, and more mysterious clues are discovered. One cop becomes intrigued by a female witness, while another returns home each night to his loving family. Each of these characters—the cops, the hacker, the witness, even the nightwatchman—believe themselves to be the protagonist of a different film, and each is lead to a different conclusion about the crime (the nightwatchman encounters ghosts; the hacker stumbles into a psychotic glam gang led by an animal-murdering singer with a Manson complex; one cop fails to resolve the contradiction between work and family, while the other’s vision of himself as the hero in an offbeat romantic drama is rejected by the object of his affection). The witness comes closest to understanding what is at work here, but her investigation—involving a cryptic series of messages left by a highly popular tween girl band—doesn’t appear to lead to any kind of logical solution, a nullity reinforced by a refrain repeated by the child who may lead the cult: “There is no Suicide Club.” Taking the self-negation of Fight Club one step further: you can’t talk about it, it doesn’t even exist.

Sion Sono’s first major film…one of the great expressions of 21st Century psychosis, along with films like Richard Kelly’s Southland Tales and Fruit Chan’s The Midnight After

The characters in Suicide Club are repeatedly asked what connection they have to themselves in a film whose disparate parts never quite hang together in the way we’ve been taught to expect. The most harrowing sequence in the film doesn’t even have any causal relation to the broader mystery, as another group of youths leap to their doom—this time, from the roof of a school, in a copycat suicide—and not out of any explicit act of brainwashing, or a mind-blowing koan, or demonic possession, but simply as a result of a snowballing peer pressure. What Sono’s captured here is the lunatic spirit of the age: Suicide Club is one of the great expressions of 21st Century psychosis, along with films like Richard Kelly’s Southland Tales and Fruit Chan’s The Midnight After—films that actively resist the demands not just of traditional narrative or tastefulness, but that embrace the anti-rationality of the hyper-real. Virtual concepts can become tangible and malignant—and pop music will destroy, or save, us all.

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

by Sean Gilman Retrospective Film

Bicycle Sighs | Sion Sono

August 8, 2016
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Sion Sono’s 1990 debut feature is a coming-of-age story heavily influenced by the then-fashionable minimalist style, but with a few of its own distinctive quirks. Sono himself plays Shiro, one of three friends who hang around, deliver newspapers, and study for their college entrance exams. Shiro’s best friend, Keita (Masahiro Sugiyama), is under pressure from his family to become a doctor and pines for an old girlfriend (Hiroko Yamamoto). Shiro is ambivalent about college; he just wants Keita to help him finish the short film they worked on in high school, a film which Keita says he doesn’t even remember. The film-within-a-film is shot in a sepia-toned Super 8, with pre-modern special effects; it’s about a group of friends who play baseball and who conjure an imaginary runner to round out the team. The runner (who wears a trench coat and a Godzilla mask) eventually comes to life, and admonishes his team to keep moving forward, to stretch first base on into the unimaginable distance. The short is beautiful as is, but Shiro wants to add a second act, a goofy sci-fi conspiracy story set around the rusted-out playground that the friends call home. Sono allows the short to inform his primary narrative, deftly blending its imagery and transforming an off-beat story into an increasingly abstract one, with metaphorically blunt scenes of alienation and despair.

A coming-of-age story heavily influenced by the then-fashionable minimalist style.

Like Tsai Ming-liang and Jia Zhangke, Sono is particularly attuned to the importance of sound and off-screen space in minimalist filmmaking. The rattle of a matchbox is repeatedly linked to the rumbling of a distant train and the clickety-clack of bicycle spokes, the soundtrack of Sono’s cluttered and dilapidated industrial hometown. Bicycles suffer terrible damage, but always off-screen (one, buried and resurrected, disintegrates in a series of cuts, like a Méliès trick). Absence and elision increasingly dominate the second half of Bicycle Sighs, as in a long sequence in which Shiro’s sister, Katako (Hiromi Kawanishi), returns home carrying a makeshift flag, flying a large pair of boxer shorts. The camera pans as Katako rounds the outside of the house, and lingers on an empty hallway while her mother’s voice orders an army of giggling children to “go play with Katako.” The pan then reverses as Katako re-emerges with a new flag—a tie-dyed banner bearing the character for “Me”—and followers her to a tree, where she climbs out of frame. This sequence wouldn’t be out of place in a Tsai film—though it’s hard to imagine Lee Kang-sheng doing something so obvious as flying ‘the flag of his self.’ Shiro later adopts his own “Me” flag, wandering the streets alone on his birthday (which is also New Year’s Day, because of course), while Keita becomes catatonically unhinged, paralyzed by his ex-girlfriend, who haunts him with a movie camera, and his family, who wear ape masks. All this culminates with Shiro and Keita going on a long bicycle journey, following the first base line laid out by the imaginary runner, and ends in an unseen fire, just a few feet shy of the ocean, at the end of the earth.

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