Notes on Sion Sono’s audacious, perverted teen romance, screening at this year’s World Cinema Showcase in its four-hour glory.
Easily classified on what-the-fuck terms, the monumental Love Exposure deserves more than a reductionist reading—if, first and foremost, to distinguish it from Sion Sono’s previously exhibited film in New Zealand, the loony Suicide Club. That movie, however likeminded in its blood soaked scenery and fixation on cross dressers, schoolgirls, and maniacal cults, was a prime example of messy, nonsensical (and, it could be argued, characteristically Japanese) entertainment; its incoherency a virtue amongst Incredible Film Festival audiences already drunk on the arbitrariness of Takashi Miike back in 2003. While no less outlandish or daring in its choices, the most surprisingly thing about Sono’s latest work is just how structured—and as a result, gripping—it is for a four-hour opus, one essentially a romantic melodrama in the vein of Gone With the Wind.
Improbably straightforward, Love Exposure nevertheless twists through some startling, imaginative turns during its double-feature length—story developments that, for its director (and occasional experimental poet), are perhaps an attempt to arrive at a sort of demented epic poetry. The plot, though long-winded, is enthralling: Catholic-raised Yu (Takahiro Nishijima), son of a widowed priest, defects to the gospel of upskirt pornography following the breakdown of his devotional family existence. Not an act of horniness or rebellion, but love, Yu must confess (and as an untainted Christian, seek out) ills to his jilted, sexually frustrated father, who’s become a wayward Church leader in the aftermath of an illicit affair. Shacking up with a trio of boneheaded truants, he graduates from his own excruciatingly impotent sin-making (squashing ants, refusing to help old ladies cross the street) to mastering the boutique sub-genre of covert panty photography: a martial arts discipline, would you believe, described in a hilarious training montage in which practitioners employ various low-angled, kung fu-styled manoeuvres with digital camera in hand.
Mixed somewhere into this heady cocktail of original sin and Catholic-guilt complex is Sono’s commentary on religion and perversion, the delivery of which—however intoxicating and off-the-wall—is too scatterbrained to pack a punch, speculating wildly from the vantage point of a crotch on everything from morality, to patriarchy, to reconciling sexual desire with love. More direct, apparently, is Sono’s endeavour to subvert perceptions of pornography—tellingly, his otherwise shamed protagonist snaps panties because he excels at it, not because it turns him on—but even then, the frequency and crudeness of gags involving teasing undie hemlines and the surreptitious pursuit of the ‘perfect shot’, suggest otherwise. Tantalizing themes and questions pondered aside, the film is more simply a parody of Japanese sexual culture: a successful and unsympathetic one contradicting its own efforts to normalise hentai (perverts) with humour that errs on the side of mockery, most pointedly in the scene where Yu ironically mans a confessional booth for deviants at a porno convention, whose increasingly bizarre fetishes poke fun at Japan’s boundless genrefication of sex.
Barely half-an-hour into proceedings, Love Exposure becomes first a gender-bending exercise, then a blended family sitcom with incestuous overtones. Yu, continuing his sinful pastime, remains strictly unaroused by the flash of white cotton until an epiphany in the form of angelic street brawler Yoko (a gutsy Hikari Mitsushima): a man-hating, Patti Smith-worshipping knockout who gives our hero his first raging hard on—and so begins the film’s endless erectile comedy and love-conquers-all mantra. As a consequence of winning over his dreamgirl dressed in drag (as Female Convict Scorpion’s revenging heroine, forfeit for losing a bet), Yu’s feelings can only be reciprocated if he’s disguised as a woman, thus precipitating the hilarious undercutting of his sexuality every time a bulge rises from beneath his costume skirt (and the director is no prude when it comes to displays of sexual arousal, fulfilling American Pie’s boner quota several times over). Yet for all the promise of transgression, Sono is a big tease, and this case of mistaken identity merely serves to engineer the farce that sustains the film’s cascading momentum through its middle stretch.
At this point we’re introduced to the villainous third party in Love Exposure’s compelling triangle—cult recruiter, lesbian seducer, and master manipulator Aya (Sakura Ando)—who opens up the narrative to more possibilities, though it has to be said the film’s broadly comic and adventurous tone narrows with time, and eventually becomes hideously earnest. Such a dramatic shift from dizzying cartoonery to angst-ridden introspection is not without reason, and the seriousness Sono adopts through the second stanza is in service of a fairly commendable stab at religious satire, with Aya’s insidious ‘Zero Church’ indoctrinating Yu’s family, and thus inviting all sorts of opportunities to highlight the behaviours, motivations, and most pertinently, corporatisation of cults. The zest by now, however, has been sapped from a film that, at originally six-hours in length, doesn’t justify its excess, nor the hyperbole thrust upon it as a supposedly profound, multifaceted triumph. Highly effective nonetheless as a plain speaking, page-turning odyssey, riveting for its flawed ambition and overwrought teenage daydreaming, Love Exposure has its moments: Yoko, straddling Yu on a windswept beach, hysterically reciting Corinthians 13 to the strains of Beethoven’s Seventh; a vengeful Aya, the erect penis of her abusive father in one hand, a pair of scissors in the other. In this outrageous castration scene alone, it’s a film that has to be seen to be believed.