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Review © Alex Apple, 2007.

Directed by 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.
Synopsis

"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 investigates.

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). Absolutely essential.

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
Violence: 9/10
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 of way.

*** 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

Sono Sion
Masumi Miyazaki
Issei Ishida

Links

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

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