Friday, December 4, 2009

Love Exposure

At its core, Love Exposure is just a simple, modest story about young love straining against the bonds of repression. And were this nothing more than a simple, modest film, who would care? Fortunately, Love Exposure is thoroughly convoluted and immodest—a delirious four-hour epic that blows up its emotions to billboard size and demands attention with every outrageous plot twist and shocking image.

There’s always a risk of Stockholm syndrome with something this size—who wants to admit they just wasted four hours, after all—but I can only express shameless admiration for what writer/director Sion Sono has done here. Never would I have thought that I would find myself touched by the story of a teen photographing the panties of unsuspecting women, but there you go.

The son of a sexually frustrated priest, Yu has turned to tosatsu—peak-a-panty photography, turned into something of a martial art by the film—in order to find a sin worth confessing to his father. It seems his usual confessions, typically consisting of minor transgressions like forgetting to offer up his seat on the bus to a mother with child, aren’t enough to satisfy the old man’s hunger for sin. With the eagerness of a puppy, Yu sets out to bring home some fine sins, but his enthusiasm goes to far—disgusted by his son’s perversity, Yu’s father banishes him from the church.

There is no sexual charge in Yu’s hobby, however. These random women bring him no pleasure. All he wants is to find his true love, a woman like the Virgin Mary. He finds her in the form of Koko, a surly punker who suffers an abusive father and has a part-time job knocking down houses (she delights in imagining the deterioration of the families that once lived there). She burns with contempt for men, getting into knock-down chopsocky brawls with random guys on the street, although she likes to begin with a brief prayer: “Jesus, forgive these morons.”

Unfortunately for Yu, he first meets the love of his life while dressed in drag as Miss Scorpion (it’s more fun if I don’t explain, so don’t even ask), and Koko falls madly in love with this mysterious “woman.” At this point, the film takes a distinctly Shakespearean detour into gender-bending romantic triangles with the entrance of Koike, a coke-dealing agent of a cult called the Zero Church, who obsesses over Yu, bugging his house and filming his every move. Oh, the delicate blossoming of young love.

In her mad, all-consuming plot to finally win Yu—who of course only has eyes for Koko, who of course can’t tolerate the creepy, panty-photographing twerp—Koike convinces Koko that she was Miss Scorpion all along. The two develop a bubbly little lesbian romance, much to the anger of the increasingly frustrated Yu. And all the while, Koike deepens her control over every figure in Yu’s life, finally turning everyone against him and moving Koko and Yu’s father into the Zero Church, where they all learn to hate and fear sex (you know, like any normal religion).

I could go on. This doesn’t even touch on Yu’s adventures as a pornographer, his coterie of loser friends/dedicated disciples, his experience as a priest of perverts, a kidnapping attempt, a sojourn in an insane asylum, and various other mad sights you’ll discover on this strange trip of a film. To think this was apparently cut down from a six-hour version.

Now, I doubt the six-hour version of Love Exposure will gain the same mythic stature as, say, the lost nine-hour version of Greed, but I can’t deny the sheer bravura, even grandeur, of the epic four hours that remain. Reeling between the extremes of high and low culture, this film is unique in that it can contain both a scene of a woman reciting Corinthians 13 to the lilting strings of Beethoven’s 7th Symphony and also of a woman using a pair of scissors to snip off the erect penis of her comatose father, luxuriating in the geyser-gush of blood that erupts. (This film single-handedly does more to resurrect the art of the comedy erection than the entire last century of pop culture.)

A film that hits the four-hour mark is making a claim to its own importance, no matter its contents. Even a four-hour film of a man reading a phonebook would demand to be viewed as art—perhaps just some sort of conceptual, anti-art-but-actually-secretly-art prank, but still—and Love Exposure tests the limits in its own way. Out of what could have been nothing more than a wacky rom-com, Sono creates a sprawl of religion, sex, and guilt, a vortex of shame that sucks in the helpless characters and drags them to the depths.

The lead actors all do an exceptional job with what surely must have been challenging roles, although I have to single out the remarkable Sakura Ando as Koike. As Yu’s nemesis, she is the motor behind most of the key sequences, and she provides the frenzied charge of the film’s strongest moments. She's a commanding figure, this angry girl who mixes leering power with flights of youthful playfulness, which only remind us of her own fragility, her doomed need for Yu, the man who despises her. The Yu and Koko story may form the heart of the film, but the more fraught and violent relationship between Yu and Koike is its soul, where all of this sexual need and fear plays out to its full tragic end.

Shot on digital, Love Exposure is hardly eye-candy (and some scenes, like Yu’s visions of Koko as the Virgin Mary, are even played for gaudiness), but it burns with inventiveness and energy. Sono possesses a stylistic range that can include a comedic montage sequence, such as Yu training under the tutelage of a sleazy old tosatsu master, or an emotionally devastating monologue delivered in a single take, or even a hand-held sequence of domestic turmoil that feels as raw as something out of Cassavetes.

Regardless of where you stand on Sono’s combination of bawdy and absurd plotting with aspirations to profundity, I think it would be hard to deny that he has made a film here that is beautifully alive and honest, devoid of calculation or false notes. Even at its most ridiculous, the film stays true to itself. Everything is invested with such savage passion that it becomes moving, the story told with such aching sincerity that to call it camp would feel somehow callous. It’s a remarkable film that can celebrate perversion with such gusto and still remain fundamentally innocent.

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