There was a night in my early teens when my friends and I gathered to watch a DVD — along the lines of, but not exactly, the original Spider-Man — and when it was over, someone pulled a mysterious disc from a backpack and threw on the first five minutes of Shion Sono's Suicide Club. Onscreen, a gaggle of schoolgirls with vapid grins on their faces leaped in front of an oncoming train. Their blood splattered everywhere. Amid mass protests from the room, the DVD was immediately removed and slipped back into the backpack from which it came, where it couldn't hurt anyone.
Cut to: present day.
We've had a largely uniform crop of movies in theaters this summer. A select few have been worldview-expanding. The rest — all those remakes and Part Fours — have been worldview-smothering, suffocating us with their unrelenting blandness. And with big, vacant grins on our faces, we have lined up in droves. The part of our collective brain dedicated to trying new things has entered its own Suicide Club.
Now, when I describe to you the film that I watched over the last couple of days, it's going to sound very far removed from our realm. Its subject matter is so bizarre that the simple task of articulating what the movie is about — like, say, to Linda Holmes — is enough to make one feel more than slightly immoral. Such is the challenge of discussing Love Exposure, a 2008 Japanese film also from Sono that, after making waves at festivals over the last three years, has bookended the summer with a May release in Los Angeles and a limited run at New York's Cinema Village beginning this Friday.
OK, so. See, there's this priest's son, and he feels the need to partake in sins so he can confess them to his father, who has become unsatisfied with his confessions. The sin the kid chooses is that of perversion, because it is, as we are continually reminded by the film's many cross-bearers, the worst sin of all. And so Yu (Takahiro Nishijima) trains to become an expert upskirt photographer, stealthily snapping fleeting glimpses of unsuspecting schoolgirls' undergarments. But then, naturally, he meets the love of his life — while cross-dressing as a woman — and must win her back from a dastardly cult bent on erasing all traces of sexuality from its members.
There's a lot more within the margins, most of it guaranteed to offend: sexual abuse from both males and females, a dream sequence involving a school shooting and the recurrent theme of the protagonist's constantly fluctuating erectile state. There are geysers of blood, characters quote entire Bible verses and the whole thing is four hours long. Safe to say we are knee-deep in NSFNPR territory here.
So what is Love Exposure? If your first instinct is to peg it as perverted, you are correct. The film admits as much. If your second instinct is to peg it as not worth your time ... well, this is where first impressions can be misleading.
In the 2011 cinematic market, Love Exposure offers something wholly unique and valuable: its very insanity. The film has a continued willingness to go above and beyond not only standards of good taste, but also standards of what, exactly, a movie should be about. We rarely see such a surprisingly perceptive and honest depiction of adolescent sexuality, or such a completely absurd dissection of modern-day religion, despite the bumper crop of films this year that also deal with fundamentalism. It's safe to say Hollywood would never have greenlit Love Exposure. But Sono's approach to such normally forbidden subject matter is exhilarating, precisely because there's no blueprint for it.
Just how far will Yoko (Hikari Mitsushima), the tough-as-nails object of Yu's affection, take her violent crusade against the male gender? How will Yu use his female alter ego Mrs. Scorpion to infiltrate the Zero Church cult, and are his extreme methods the proper way to dispense justice? And ... oh jeez, were we really just treated to a kung-fu style "training montage" for snapping panty shots?
I should pause here to clarify that despite what might seem like misogynist subject matter, the film is in fact strongly female-driven in a Kill Bill sort of way. Both Yoko and the third lead, villainous cult leader Koike (Sakura Ando), are survivors of sexual abuse who strike back with great vengeance and furious anger against not only their tormentors, but also any and all potential threats to their livelihoods. They're incredibly gritty characters who own the world around them independently of male figures, without sacrificing their femininity.
Foreign films, and particularly the last decade or so of East Asian cinema, adhere much less to Hollywood commercial standards, though that costs them broader accessibility. It's no surprise that Love Exposure's four-hour runtime — which you'd almost never see in an American production — is excessive and ridiculously self-indulgent. The last forgettable act, in particular, will be distressingly familiar to American viewers as a sign of Hancock Syndrome, when a film's climactic sequence is set in a cheap-looking and entirely underwhelming locale.
And yet. For all of Love Exposure's grand, messy flaws, there is, underneath, a film that is vibrant, sinful and very much alive. Something about it is not easily shaken. Just think about the nice, safe entertainment we've subjected ourselves to between May and August, and how easily shakable it all was. Now think: Wouldn't it be nice to step outside of all that and see a movie really trying to do something different for a change?
I know most of you are sick of the same ol', same ol'. I've deciphered as much from your comments right here at NPR. So here, lying exposed for your consideration, is the polar opposite. Trust me: We needed this.
Copyright 2011 National Public Radio.