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Love Exposure | Review

Sono Paints a Portrait of a Love so Outrageous that it can only ever be Realized in Complete Madness.

Adopting the episodic style of Andrei Rublev, yes, but also of Japanese animation (an identification which is constantly recalled by the film’s rather liberal usage of the term ‘hentai,’ for pervert), Love Exposure is the kind of work that it takes a while for the viewer to even begin to think he can classify—and right when that happens, like Proteus slipping through the hands of Menelaus, it sets about proving the viewer wrong at just about every turn, now a lion, now a boar, now a puddle of really dirty, self-conscious water. But with a film as long and as formally heterodox as Love Exposure, it is certainly worth asking what exactly it is aiming for, if only so as not to hold it to a standard it doesn’t actually set for itself. Yet no matter what the standard one adopts—whether Tarkovskian film epic, or Buñuel-esque socio-politico-religious farce, or Kubrickian (non)sexual odyssey, or authentically hysterical onanistic romp (admittedly some of these are new banners, hung especially for it)— Love Exposure seems hell-bent on being difficult.

The action starts off somberly enough, with the death of protagonist Yu Honda’s devout mother and the father’s sudden great awakening, but then things get really strange, really quickly. A woman comes to one of the father’s services (such was his newfound religious fervor that he became ordained—as a Catholic priest, mind you, and yes, in Japan), which are described as being cheery and hopeful at first by the protagonist who doubles as our narrator (who, for the record, is played terrifically by Takahiro Nishijima), and she has a full-on breakdown afterwards at the feet of the father. And no sooner has this happened than she is madly in love with him, which is the first of a raft of indications that the film isn’t really operating in a realist mode, or at least not exclusively at any rate. Anyway, at this point the father is caught off guard, but he quickly assents after being chased around a park by the same and sets up a home where he plans to lead a second and considerably more epicurean existence outside the church. But despite all this, Yu’s father fails to live up to his lover’s expectations—he cannot marry her so long as he remains a priest, and this is precisely what she demands of him. So she leaves him.

As a result, Yu’s father becomes hysterical himself, which translates, within the limits of the church, into sinners-

in-the-hands-of-an-angry-god sermonizing the like of Jonathan Edwards, considerably less hopeful and happy. This gives rise to a certain estrangement between him and Yu, and he demands of his son that he confess his sins and not withhold anything from him. Innocent Yu can hardly think of anything even remotely sinful, but so fervent is his father in his demands that he literally starts courting sin—so that he has something to tell him besides not helping elderly women cross the street. This sequence of confessions between father and son are one of the true highlights of the movie, and the conceit itself is a stroke of absolute genius on the part of Sono, who it is plain was enjoying himself while filming. It is in search of graver sins that Yu stumbles upon the life of a ‘hentai,’ snapping pictures of girls’ underwear without their realizing this. He becomes so good at this that he wins himself three followers—and so it happens that for nearly forty minutes the viewer is subjected to funny but repetitive scenes of Yu and company shooting pictures with all kinds of moves one might better expect of a cheap, stereotypical Asian action movie. Whether this is precisely the purpose of the film—to act as a kind of tapestry of all the different clichés that have sprung up in the cinematic Orient, subtly revising and repurposing them—is unclear, but what is clear is that forty minutes of these sequences is overkill.

Thankfully the film, as if aware this was becoming quite tiresome quite quickly, pivots to another viewpoint in the second chapter. But this does not spell the end of our troubles, because this new chapter introduces a whole new angle—The Zero Church, a cult-like organization that seems to want to proselytize all of Yu’s father’s congregation. But before all of that comes to the fore, we are given a perhaps too intimate portrait by much of one of the group’s recruits, who in one sequence, to put it quite bluntly, snaps off the erect penis of her abusive father. She also keeps a parakeet, which one constantly thinks must be symbolic in some fashion. But this is our bad guy, if we can speak in such terms—and she is after Yu, and quickly begins to insinuate herself into his life. Not long thereafter, Yu meets a girl—Yoko Ozawa, his female love-interest, his ‘Maria,’ after the Virgin Mary, whom he promises his mother he will take before a statue of the latter. But there’s a problem—when he meets her and saves her life from a bunch of comically inexplicable thugs, Yu happens to be dressed as a woman after losing a bet to one of his followers on who had snapped the better underwear shot. Yoko, as the viewer learns in the succeeding chapter, is not fond of men—so when Yu appears dressed as a woman, he makes a strong impression on her. He calls himself, so comically it almost appears to have a hint of seriousness to it, ‘Miss Scorpion.’

From here on things get quite complicated, and while there are several very inspired sequences, many of them are dragged out for laborious stretches of complete narrative inertia. This is clearly the film’s biggest shortcoming—its ponderous length, beneath the weight of which all of the invention seems to sink. It is not to say that a film of its length cannot succeed, but rather to suggest that a film of its scope, as self-undermining in tone and scattershot and collage-like visually, would do well to pare itself back just a touch.

Rating 3 stars

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