Monday, November 4, 2013

Guilty of Romance (2011)

Sion Sono completes his "Hate Trilogy" with yet another brutal onslaught of sex, murder and madness with his 2011 film, "Guilty of Romance". Only this time, Sono decides to borrow elements from Luis Bunuel's classic "Belle De Jour" (1967), strips it of all its ingenious storytelling and subtlety, throws in a grisly murder mystery and copious amounts of sex along with poetic ramblings and some Kafka! Does Sono make the best of all the elements in this final installment?

We open with a rather familiar murder scene one rainy night with Det. Yoshida (Miki Mizuno) being called in to a crime scene where there are two bodies found, which are part human, part mannequin! The severed members of the corpses are replaced with their mannequin counterparts and sewn together! The bodies are found in some shady location in the love-hotel district, which is a haven for lovers looking for a short sexual romp.

As the mystery of the ugly crime unfolds, a parallel narrative flashes back to the story of Izumi played by the gorgeous Megumi Kagurazaka, a sexually repressed, insomniac, submissive wife of a famous novelist Yukio Kikuchi (Kanji Tsuda), who suffers from a strange kind of OCD. He wants his indoor slippers placed in an exact position by his bed and at the door, for instance, and expects his wife to do the needful each time, failing which she may be subject to a scolding, just like that one instance when she places the wrong soap in the bathroom! Every time he leaves his house, the two exchange a fixed set of words. "Off I go then" followed by her peep, "Have a nice day".

Life goes on, until, with the approval of the weird husband, Izumi takes up a job at a local supermarket selling hot sausages. She is later discovered by a lady who is impressed with her drop dead gorgeous anatomy and offers her a modeling job. It is not strictly a modeling job as we later learn. The modeling is just a façade, beneath the innocuous exterior of which, possibly lies a seedy world of pornography. 

In no time, the meek, shy housewife experiences a sexual awakening, gives consent to all the exploitation at the modeling agency, and turns into a wild sexpot who soon offers herself to her supermarket customers for some bodily pleasure! Izumi is now all happy and radiant, with her newfound secret life, while at home the same old mundane routine with the hubby continues! Soon, another woman named Mitsuko (Makoto Togashi), who's also leading a double life, meets Izumi and introduces her to a world in the darkest, most morally depraved corners of the city. Izumi follows her mentor Mitsuko, as she begins to get drawn in by her twisted philosophy only to discover some bitter truths about her existence.

It all sounds fairly interesting on paper, but unfortunately, "Guilty of Romance", not only has a misleading title, but it also suffers from a lack of focus, especially in the latter half. What starts as an interesting psychological drama focusing on a sexually repressed woman and her transgression to a new awakening, a la "Belle De Jour", turns into a sickening exercise in gratuitous sex and nudity that rambles on and refuses to go to any great distances except hover around its own maze of contrivance and ultimately loses its way. Sono, being a former poet, adds some poetic and philosophical touch about words and language; like words have no meaning until they are flesh! Mitusko's other ramblings dwell upon the importance of the body and how it has value. Nothing comes free! That helps as a driving force in establishing how prostitution is a respectable profession! 

Sono keeps us wondering as to where the film is really headed. He successfully engages the viewer in trying to connect the dots of multiple threads of the story, waiting in anticipation, as Izumi's world moves from nude modeling to prostitution. Literary references to Kafka's "The Castle" as something unattainable are added to the mix of the journeys of Mitsuko and Izumi. Sadly, it doesn't really shape up into something substantial and satisfying as it should have. There definitely seems to be something missing here.

Sono's storytelling style that is usually episodic takes us to the last chapter, the End of Story, to a culmination that brings in some additional characters and new twists to the story, including a resolution of the aforementioned murder mystery. But these twists, while could be considerably disturbing for first timers, and although arrived at with some fine edge and a pulse-like war-drum score, aren't half as surprising or exciting for audiences familiar with Asian horror/thrillers. As a matter of fact they border on the brink of manipulation and hence an inherent pretense shows in the deadly twist of a forced act of violence in a rather clumsy way to wrap up the proceedings!

Despite all its narrative flaws, Sono's "Guilty of Romance" does deserve points for his filmmaking finesse, nevertheless, and also for his excellent sense of atmospherics. A string score evoking melancholy and a sense of tragedy complements the neon lit seedy underbelly of Shibuya, Tokyo. The special makeup effects pertaining to the crime scene are realistically done to the extent of being nauseating! And there is a special sexualized homage to Martin Scorsese's "Taxi Driver" (1976), one of the turning points of the film.

Megumi Kagurazaka does her best and delivers a daring performance, but one can't help but think how exploitative it was in her unabashed skin show and sex scenes. After a point her periodic humping gets somewhat tiring! Kanji Tsuda delivers an aptly deadpan act as the uninterested, weirdo novelist. But the performance that shines the most is of Makoto Togashi. Her transformation from a university lecturer by day to a ravishing seductress by night (offering herself to her students too!) is nothing short of brilliant! Those eyes and voice do a roundabout in an almost scary fashion, as if like a woman possessed!

Sono reduced the film length by approximately 30 minutes from the original cut which is apparently available only in Japan right now. Due to a lack of good subtitles for a rip of the longer version, this reviewer had to resort to viewing the more accessible abridged international cut, which is also the version Sono himself prefers. Apparently, there is a parallel story about detective Yoshida as well, in the longer cut. Whether the international cut improves upon or ruins the original Japanese cut remains to be seen. But as long as this version is concerned, Sono's filmmaking talent is very much in place but the script leaves a lot to be desired. With someone like Sion Sono, one would expect something called as a "Hate Trilogy" to climax with a bang. Too bad, though, that it had to end with a mild thump instead.

Score: 7/10

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