Love Exposure — movie review
Posted on September 5, 2011 by Chris Nelson
I wasn’t sure if I was going to review this, but it only runs for three more days at the SF Roxie. I’m a big fan of Sion Sono. Strange Circus, Hazard, and Noriko’s Dinner Table are three of my favorite movies of the past 10 years. He delights me far more often than his disappoints, but with Love Exposure, I was left wondering whether one of my favorite directors had pulled a Death Proof.
Let’s back up a second. Love Exposure is, like other Sion Sono efforts, a tale of dysfunctional families, damaged humans, corruptive cults, deviant desires, and religious guilt. It is a sprawling tale of numerous characters’ quests for love, not just romantic, but platonic acceptance from family and peers. And that’s just for starters. It’s also a parody of contemporary Japanese genre entertainment, from romantic dorama, to sukeban film, to anime entertainment, to pornography. I guess if you really wanted to categorize it, you could consider it a horror comedy action romance existential drama revenge film. And that’s just on the surface.
I apologize up front. This synopsis might get long.
Heading up Love Exposure‘s cast of characters is Yu (Takahiro Nishijima), a young man who promises his dying mother he’ll find a pure hearted companion (dubbed his “Maria”). His father (Atsuro Watanabe, Memoirs of a Teenage Amnesiac), devastated by her loss, consoles himself in his religion, becoming a priest. When a woman of questionable morals (Makiko Watanabe) entices, romances, then ditches him, he’s transformed from a benevolent priest to a fire-and-brimstone disciplinarian. Yu, caught in the middle, becomes the target of his anger. This comes in the form of mandatory daily confessions of sins, of which Yu at first tries to fabricate. But these never seem to satisfy his father. He moves on to real sins – perpetrated solely in order to have truthful confessions — progressing from rudeness, to violence, to theft, and even falling in with the wrong crowd, but to no avail. His father remains unphased. Finally he moves on to sexual sins – the ones the church always gets its panties in a bunch over. To this end, he experiments with upskirt photography, reports to his father, and BAM! True heartfelt rage. This being the first emotional connection with his father, Yu, accompanied by his newfound friends, sets about to become the king of ‘peek-a-panty’ photography.
Skip to Aya Koike (Sakura Ando). A delinquent from an abusive home, and prime operative in the criminal Zero Church cult. She encounters Yu in a ‘peek-a-panty’ outing, catching him at the prime point of peeking. Rather than becoming outraged, she demands an explanation, which Yu delivers in spades. Surprised by Yu’s honesty, she sets her sights on netting his affection, using any methods she, or her cult, has available. She figures if she can remove the father, Yu’s heart might have room for her. [A side note for this character: be sure to keep an eye on her bird. There's more to it than you might initially think].
Lastly, enterer Yoko (Hikari Matsushima), a ferocious female from a similarly broken home. Neglected and abused by her womanizing father, she has grown to hate men. All men. Everywhere. And this is not just a simmering hatred. Her violent rage more often than not boils over the surface, erupting in violence.
So, back to Yu. As the film reaches its initial setup (about an hour into the picture), he loses a bet to his panty-peeking posse, and is forced to dress up as Sasori (see our reviews of the Female Prisoner Scorpion movies for more info), find a random girl, and profess his love to her ‘in a gay voice’. He makes his way to the center of town, where Koike has set a trap for Yoko (I know, it sounds outlandish even with all this setup). Just as Yoko is set upon by a large group of Yakuza thugs (it’s never really explained how Koike motivates them), Yu jumps in, in full-Sasori garb, and helps her fight them off. Thus sets off the film’s series of missed connections, and unrequited love rhomboids. Yu loves Yoko, Yoko loves Sasori, Koike loves Yu. And that’s just for starters. As the film progresses, things only get more complicated, more convoluted, and more hopeless. But as the film repeatedly states, ‘love is suffering,’ and suffer these characters will.
[Again, I apologize for the length of that, but I felt the film deserved a bit better description than 'a boy takes pictures of panties, and gets in a gender-crossed romance with a girl,' which I've seen on a few sites so far.]
So, given that all the information I’ve provided up to now is setup for the actual story, you might be inclined to reason the four hour running time is a necessary evil. It’s not. As layered and multi-faceted as the film’s narrative is, Sono takes far too much time retreading sequences in redundant flashbacks, hand-holding the audience by narrating obvious points, and indulging in excess gag sequences. Take the flashbacks for instance. As each character is introduced, a sizable chunk of a previous character’s narrative is re-explored. If this was done in Rashomon fashion, with radically different perspectives providing profound insights into the story, this would be fine. But these are retreads, depicting the same events that were presented previously, but with a slightly different take and added narration to make obvious points that were already inferred.
Then there are the sequences of redundant dialogs. Remember in highschool, when your friend had a crush and talked endlessly about them, with the same talking points, day after day? That’s what this feels like. It also doesn’t help that certain characters are far more fleshed out than others (amazing, given the four hour runtime, yes?). For all the setup Yu receives, Yoko’s motivations feel like an afterthought. At best she feels like a sloppy caricature of a half-reasoned stereotype – twice removed from the damaged girl struggling with misplaced animosity and daddy issues that she should be. Sono makes up for this a bit with Aya Koike’s character, whose pernicious presence never fails to creep you out, but she’s technically a supporting character. And because of the comparative strength of these characters, Yoko’s presence becomes something of a narrative wart. Irritating, annoying, and in need of elimination. When you find yourself relived when the primary love interest goes off screen, something is wrong.
And lastly, there are the gags that are beaten into the ground. Take for instance, the panty peeking episodes. I like fanservice as much as the next guy, but after the tenth or eleventh time (okay, maybe the fifteenth), the gag becomes old [side note: what's the deal with embroidered panties? Who in the world finds that sexy?]. Keeping with the highschool analogy, it’s like listening to the friend that quotes film lines over and over rather than analyzing or creating their own jokes. It’s amusing at first, but soon begins to grate on the nerves.
I understand Sono might have been keeping the redundant elements in an attempt to guard against losing his audience (at 4 hours, people’s minds are guaranteed to wander), but the film comes across like a rough draft, badly in need of editing. I’d imagine he could have cut down the film by a good hour and a half — at least — and still made the same philosophical arguments, hit the same narrative points, and preserved the same overall feel, while increasing the quality of the picture.
Okay, so I aired out all my gripes up front. What did I like about the film? Well, first, when it hits its marks, is completely golden. Take, for instance, Yu’s panty-peeking methodology. Employing kung-fu moves and catlike skills (he even holds his camera like Sukeban Deka), he tumbles about the town snapping pics in stealthy fashion. These sequences (before the joke gets beaten into the ground), are some of the most hilarious things I’ve seen all year. Then there’s the film’s exploration of moral shaming, guilty longings, and emotional acceptance. Keeping in line with the film’s title, there’s a deep thread about the need to come to terms with your own flaws, and how, in order for love (self, platonic, romantic, etc.) to occur, those flaws must be laid bare and in turn accepted by all parties involved. Furhter, there’s the notion that some institutionally identified flaws might not actually be flaws at all, and the persecution thereof leads only to damaged individuals. I won’t even get started on the comparisons between organized religion and cults. Suffice it to say, it’s heady and provocative stuff.
I should probably cut it off here. I’ll just say that Love Exposure is not an entirely bad film, but it is a disappointing one. If I hadn’t experienced Sono’s work before, I might have found it more enjoyable, but with his having set the bar so high in previous efforts, I’m left to wonder how he could have done better. Still, in spite of all my criticisms, Love Exposure remains one of the most unique cinematic experiences you will encounter all year (and maybe for the next few). See it, and make up your own mind.