Sono Sion, 2005, 108 min. Starring Masumi Miyazaki, Issei Ishida, Mai Takahashi,
Hiroshi Ohguchi and Tomorowo Taguchi.
Sion Sono is rapidly revealing himself as the enfant terrible
of modern Japanese cinema. His last major work, 2002's Suicide
Circle, polarised opinion: popularised by internet bootleg and
glowing reviews on a few key websites, some criticised it as an
impenetrable, deliberately obtuse, intentionally shocking exploitative
gorefest which promised much but which ultimately delivered little more than
a bespangled drag queen singing bad J-pop. Badly.
They, of course, were wrong, and about as wrong as you could get:
what was utterly, utterly great about Suicide
Circle was its alternate
worldview, its pessimistic outlook, and its heavy emotional hit.
Strip away all the stylisation and gore and what you were left
with ultimately was a human drama, a very relevant satire on the
modern entertainment industry.
Which brings us to Strange Circus , which, to be fair, could
also be classed as a human drama with a pessimistic outlook. It's
Sono's first internationally released work since Suicide Circle,
though Noriko's Dinner Table, a sequel/prequel to Suicide
Circle, is now just awaiting a (English-subtitled!) Japanese
DVD release in late February 2007. But what a film Strange
Circus is - intensely difficult and challenging to watch, confusing,
stylish, philosophical, totally insane, and quite, quite brilliant.
"I was sentenced to death at birth. Or maybe my mother
was to be executed, and we switched places. As far back
as I can remember I've been surrounded by guillotines. One wrong
move, and I'm gone."
Mitsuko is twelve, going on thirty-five. She lives in a lovely
rococo house with her parents - dad Gozo who's the principal of
the local school, and mum Sayuri who doesn't seem to do very much
at all, really. Though Gozo is clearly much older than Sayuri,
their sex life is incredibly healthy, mum and dad throwing themselves
at each other regularly and with lustful abandon. Until, curious
at the peculiar noises emanating from her parents' bedroom, Mitsuko
Gozo, not to put too fine a point on it, is a weirdo. The school
he runs seemingly lets him watch porn movies on a movie projector
in his office, and has no problem with the increasingly bizarre,
semi-inspirational guff that he spouts to the kids via CCTV every
morning. When he summons his daughter to his office, swathed in
darkness while he enjoys his pinku eiga, he embraces
her creepily, almost sexually, kissing her on the head and reminding
her that he's a man, she's a girl. Cue voiceover - "when dad
first molested me, it was the beginning of the end".
What's already an uncomfortable watch now becomes almost unbearable
as Mitsuko's fate is played out before us. Gozo convinces her to
hide in a cello case, modified with a spyhole, in front of which
he has sex with Sayuri. Then, to Sayuri's horror (though she acquiesces)
it's Mitsuko's turn to swap with mum, and Sayuri's turn to watch
her daughter's rape from the confines of the cello case.
Finding it difficult to cope, Sayuri herself turns abusive towards
Mitsuko, plunging the entire family into a pit of despair. As this
first part of the movie finishes, you're left with no doubt that
things, most certainly, are not going to end well.
And, suddenly, the film changes tack. The previous half hour or
so is revealed to be a construct of a writer, Taeko Mitzusawa,
a reclusive, wheelchair-bound figure who surrounds herself with
arty acolytes and writes, almost exclusively, about this child
Mitsuko. She has a habit of sleeping with her assistants, and when
body-art-obsessed Yuji (Issei Ishida) is introduced to her she
takes more than a little of a shine to him...
From here on in Strange Circus takes an increasingly
odd tack. That's not to say it's been particularly logical up until
now; what with an introduction of Mitsuko coming up on stage at
a particularly bloodthirsty circus full of freaks, dilettantes
and dandies, about to be guillotined; and several symbolic "birth" sequences
as Mitsuko walks down long red squelchy-sounding corridors. But
the seeming left-turn into some vague sort of normality - well,
normality in the sense of relief from the sheer horror of the child
abuse storyline - and a jump to a more langorous pacing solely
highlights the increasing incongruity of the second part of the
movie. And underpinning the entire film is one line of
dialogue, articulated by Yuji as the final line in the final scene
before the epilogue - "what's real, and what's not?"
So what is this movie about then? Well, in our best
hypothesis, nothing of what you see in the movie is reality.
The whole piece has a deep air of unreality in fact,
to the extent that, surely, the entire plot unfolds within Taeko's
own head, an elaborate mental construct to cope with her many multiple
personalities. And the key to all of this is the shift in tone
which Sono presents to us in the second part of the film, just
as Rolly's entrance in Suicide Circle did similarly. There's
absolutely no-one who's
normal in the film, not a single character, signalling that in
the narration of the movie - entirely from Taeko's point of view - there's
something desperately, desperately wrong. As characters are slowly
removed from the plotline, it becomes clear that this paring down
is Taeko's attempt to reconcile her multiple personalities into
something cope-able with. And, you could argue, that her multiple
personalities go beyond the Taeko / Sayuri / Mitsuko axis into every
single character in the film itself.
There's so much to be said about Strange Circus it's
difficult to condense it all down into something approaching a
manageable length for a review, or without giving too much away.
Performance-wise, the actors and actresses are unimpeachable. Masumi
Miyazaki as Sayuri / Taeko is stoic, believeable and trustworthy;
Hiroshi Ohguchi's Gozo is suitably malevolent and Mai Takahasi
as the young Mitsuko copes well with the horrors that the script
must have forced her to confront when filming. Issei Ishida exudes
naiveté, initially at least, as Taeko's new assistant Yuji
- but Ishida's range is such that, when Sono demands his character
takes a darker turn towards the movie's conclusion, he is able
to cope with the more sombre material without becoming a pantomime
self-parody. It's an astonishing performance.
Visually, Sono delivers everything you might expect from an extraordinarily
flamboyant director, and every shot is packed with beautifully
constructed detail. Every element, from set and costume design
down to the tinny 1938 accordion music that plays almost throughout,
seems to be there to add extra depth to Sono's vision. Quite what that
vision is, is, of course, entirely open to question - there is
no doubt, though, that Strange Circus is a serious work
of art; challenging in the way the best art should be, gorgeous
to look at, and deeply peculiar.
Superficially, Strange Circus is a revenge
movie, and you could argue that the target of the revenge gets
all that's coming to them. But that's actually presuming that the
events depicted in the film do actually take place in the reality
of that film. For Strange Circus is one of those movies
that plays around with the notion of reality, offering in places
so many explanations, counter-explanations and red herrings for
the events that unfold that, initially, the viewer is left reeling.
It's not a one-watch throwaway piece, but something you'll want
to (and should) return to periodically to try to piece together.
Many university essays will be written on this in years to come
(but, for goodness sake, don't let that fact put you off watching
it. It's not a worthy art flick, but something way deeper).
Snowblood Apple Rating for this film:
Entertainment Value: 10/10
Chills: 8/10, but not in a good way
Sex: 8/10, but definitely not in a good way
Sexiness: -8,000,000/10. This is not a movie for the one-handed viewer
Huh? Factor: 10/10
Consequent immediate rewatch factor: 10/10
Befeathered bewinged begarlanded little people: 1. Which is one more
than any other move. Ever.
Films in a Similar Style: Suicide
Circle. Mulholland Drive, in the same unreal, psycho-sexual sort
*** Essential! ***
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Strange Circus Wallpaper
please note: the actual paper does not have the Snowblood
Apple logo on it.
You can download this wallpaper here: [1024x768] [1048x768]
Wallpaper credit: Alex Apple, 2006
Snowblood Apple Filmographies
Sadly, the official site at http://masumi-circus.com/ has vanished
in recent weeks. You can still visit Sono Sion's own site at http://www.sonosion.com/ though
it's Japanese only.
http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=UfbANLRB7Fs - trailer on YouTube.
http://www.tlareleasing.com/details/product_details.cfm?id=229414 - TLA are giving this a US release in March 07.
http://www.offscreen.com/biblio/essays/sion_sono/ - Fascinating
interview with Sono about the movie
http://esotika.blogspot.com/2007/01/strange-circus-sion-sono-2005.html - insightful review
http://www.midnighteye.com/reviews/strange-circus.shtml - Midnight
Eye give the movie their once-over