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.