So one day, an ambitious Sion Sono decided to enter his kitchen of madness to whip up a perfect recipe that would be lapped up by one and all; a dish made out of familiar ingredients, served in a generous portion to satiate individuals of varied tastes. Sono probably had a checklist in his hand that looked something like this.
1. A bizarre, convoluted plot told in a non-linear style - Check.
2. Dysfunctional families devoid of any sound individual - Check.
3. Traumatic childhood; possibly abuse/sexual or otherwise at the hands of parents/stepparents - Check.
4. Aberrant, deviant sexuality - Check.
5. Hysteria and madness - Check.
6. Black comedy - Check.
7. Plenty of over-the-top violence and gore - Check.
8. A dash of of almost bubble-gum teenage romance and a good amount of farcical humor to go along.
And voila! An eclectic potpourri, with a signature Sion Sono touch is ready to be savoured!
You've really got to to hand it to Sion Sono. Trust the mad doctor from Japan to come out with something thoroughly engaging and entertaining despite handling familiar topics in not-so-realistic situations and fusing them with contemporary issues plaguing today's young and the restless (read teens!), specifically due to the advancement of technology and visual media.
Going into plot details would serve no purpose in the scope of this review, for the beauty of the narrative of Sono's ambitious epic "Love Exposure" lies in letting the story unravel in its own layered glory. There is a lot to discover along the way, as Sono keeps throwing surprises at his audiences and makes us jump with joy in this fast paced, unremitting ride. At a long, almost four hours running time, Sono's screenplay packs in abundant material cleverly put together by some brilliant editing, a non-linear storytelling style that isn't quite original but works well in the framework of this film nonetheless.
In an almost Tarantino-esque flair, the first few acts unfold in a flamboyant manner, with a racy background score, huge doses of violence accompanied by dark humour and a good amount of action too. All of the lead characters, who would later become part of a twisted love triangle of sorts, are introduced in this first hour and a half. These are all 17 year old vulnerable teens at the most crucial turns of their lives. A lot of disturbing, sexually charged plot points are touched upon, including child abuse and on a lighter note, a strong focus on a particular character's uncontrollable libido is a big part of this bold narrative! Somehow, these become the driving forces for how the characters would act or react in the rest of the story.
Part of the winning aspects of Sono's giant package are the ironic twists of fate and an evident attack on the hypocrisies of the church that eventually bring about the fall of certain individuals in the film! This is a world where sinning becomes a way of life! With twisted characters come twisted moral values, and not unexpectedly, there is not a single character with any bit of morality or empathy left in him/her, owing to trauma or otherwise! But Sono accurately taps into the minds of vulnerable teens with young, rebellious blood pumping through their veins. At their most sensitive when attacked at their weakest points, they deviate and follow paths they shouldn't; like clinging to an infatuation, or developing theories and mindsets that aren't really reasonable.
For example, Yoko (Hikari Mitsushima) who throws about a lot of attitude, begins to hate all men (except Kurt Cobain!) and considers them enemy because of her father, steers clear of any male that comes by, and hence is open to lesbianism (!). Yu (Takahiro Nishijima), who is a normal child, resorts to acts of vandalism, robbery and voyeurism, merely to become a real sinner in the eyes of his father, a priest who, in a fit of a psychological breakdown, refuses to accept that any man is born without sin! And then there is Koike (Sakura Ando) who turns into a complete misanthrope, again owing to abuse at the hands of her father, and finds solace in a fraudulent cult by the name of "Zero Church", and takes it upon as a personal mission to convert Catholic families to the faith and ideologies of the cult!
With three such off-the-wall characters at its center, it would be foolish to expect anything sane or rational as regards to the plot development. Sure enough, what Sono takes us through is nothing short of insane! Sono keeps shifting the vantage point in the first half to give us a good look at the characters' motivations that decide their course of actions. Of course, all of them aren't the most sensible ways to look at things, a tad far-fetched too, but it is not unusual for human beings to behave illogically in this world anyway!
Sono gives us a sneek peak into the world of abuse of visual media, including hidden cameras, voyeurism, the art of capturing peek-a-panty photographs, also known as Tosatsu in the Japanese pornographic industry! Just when you think Sono is going the misogynist way by perhaps showcasing perverse manners of peeking up the girls' skirts, in a strangely ironic turn of events, the expert of the Tosatsu art has to put on a drag act and pose as a female to pull off a sticky situation he gets himself into! It is about here that the film turns from a perverse dark comedy into a farcical comedy of errors and the plot veers into further absurdity! But Sono keeps things under control and doesn't quite insult his viewers' intelligence as is normally the outcome of such angles in a story.
Sono, in a clever move, also switches his filming device and transitions at intervals from a digital well lit frame to a grainy handheld home video footage style, perhaps to make the viewer feel ill at ease, as a voyeur peeking into the lives of his lead characters, in a film with voyeurism as its backbone!
The camerawork is relentless, never languid, always on the move and sometimes disorienting, but it is hardly a drawback and in fact succeeds, owing to a fast paced, taut screenplay, razor-sharp editing and quirky dialog that you can't help but chuckle at! Sample this: "All perverts were created equal". Or "I am a pervert with dignity..at least I am not a phony"! What catches us unawares is also the fusion of mood. For example, in a seemingly serious or even a disturbing scene, a sexually explicit gag is interspersed in a comic way! What tone was really intended then? One may, perhaps, never know.
For all its humongous length, Sono offers us plenty to take home. "Love Exposure" is like a giant TV soap opera combined with signature modern Asian cinema. It is like a different kind of a coming-of-age film and at times, a buddy movie too. From scheming characters to comedy stemming from confusion, to severed limbs (and other parts!) that give way to blood fountains that paint the walls around, lots of mayhem, chaos and a good amount of surrealism as well! Noteworthy is a situation and dialog homage to Hiroshi Teshigahara's masterpiece "Woman in the Dunes" (1964) that you might miss if you blink. A talented story-teller that he is, Sono never loses his grip on the narrative except in the final hour, perhaps, when things get a little shaky and Sono's palm starts to get slightly sweaty! It is here that "Love Exposure" also freewheels into Bollywood style melodrama (no kidding!) and the proceedings and a culmination that actually should've been magnificent and breathtaking (after an explosive, blood-soaked showdown in the final half hour) eventually, laughably fizzles out.
Despite a half-baked wrap-up, Sono's film definitely oozes ambition and the effort invested deserves its due credit. Take some time out for this mind-numbing joyride, a film experience like no other, only when you have a full four hours to invest. Try not to take breaks other than the essential ones!