NYAFF FESTIVAL DISPATCH #3: Sion Sono’s Gleefully Sacrilegious Four-hour “Love Exposure” (Japan, 2008)

Each year, the last week of the New York Asian Film Festival shifts uptown to Japan Society where programming overlaps with the first week of co-presenter sister fest Japan Cuts: Festival of New Japanese Film. This year I caught of number of my NYAFF’09 favorites here (Vacation, All Around Us, and unexpectedly delightful Magic Hour), as well as picking up a handful of tickets to Japan Cuts.

I’d challenge viewers seeing any pairing of these films to come up with a “Japanese contemporary film is [x]”: the range of themes, topics, and styles ever tacks “Japan” to the top of my national-cinemas-to-watch list. But as has happened to award-winners at NYAFF the past few years, some of the more unusual, passionate work will never get US theatrical distribution (Sad Vacation, Funky Forest, Princess Raccoon, etc.). But if you hunt far and wide (and graymarket), DVDs at least may be obtained.

LOVE EXPOSURE (Japan, 2008)

I am going to have a difficult time speaking about Sion Sono’s gleefully sacrilegious four-hour Love Exposure without resorting to extremes. This partially due to the film’s intentionally tripelbock hot-button content, but mostly because (for all of its pile-it-on plot hijinks) this was my favorite experience of the festival.

Yu (Takahiro Nishijima) is a quiet, dutiful son born unto zealous Catholics. One of the last thing Yu’s mother tells her son before she dies of illness: she hopes Yu will someday meet his very own Mary. Yu’s father enters the priesthood in the wake of his wife’s death. Haunted by a disastrous love affair, he forces his goody-goody son to make daily confession to him, berating his son for insisting, timidly, that he hasn’t sinned that day.

Yu responds as any quiet, dutiful son placed in this position must: he makes confession. After getting caught out for his initial, awkward fabrications (“I didn’t help an old lady cross the street” when in fact he did) he commits himself wholeheartedly to true sin. The worse the sin, the more his father revert from his priestly deportment to Yu’s red-in-the-face, screaming dad. So in a sequence evoking Bresson’s Pickpocket (1959), Yu transforms himself from altar boy into the King of Perverts: a blackbelt upskirt panty photographer. (Asked about research for this work in the q&a, Sono talked about getting arrested a few times when going out shooting with his photographer consultant.)

On the other side of the story, swaggers tough-as-titanium Yoko (Hikari Mitsushima). Raised by an abusive, ceaselessly philandering father, she achieves an epiphany looking around her bedroom at posters of female pop culture icons: she resolves to hate men and love women. She runs away from home with her father’s latest ex-lover (also the object of Yu’s father’s disastrous affair) determined to invent a new life for herself, not as a daughter but as the ex-lover’s peer.

And then comes The Miracle (anticipated by a series of countdown title cards):  the collision of Yu with Yoko in a city park — while the two of them face off against a gang of scores of male thugs. Preparing to fight the entire world single-handedly, or die trying, Yoko draws a gauzy scarf down around her face and steadies herself — evoking for Yu his mother’s demand to meet his own “Mary.” (Yu: “Who is this woman!”) However, Yu joins the fray dressed in drag as the costumed exploitation hero “Lady Scorpion” (his fighting skills honed by hard training as a committed sinner) having earlier that day lost a game of upskirt-photo high-card with his friends. (Between punches, Yoko asks herself: “Who is this woman!”) Love at first fight.

This inciting incident, one hour into the film, is followed by the film’s opening title sequence. (Greeted with cheers at the screening I attended.) Much of the rest of the film backs into this sequence and the consequences that follow, to reveal the Miracle not as an act of God, but as the master manipulation of giggly, white-clad schoolgirl Koike (Sakura Ando), a Zero Church capo, in the service of a deep dark religious cult purpose (inflected by her own personal craving for sadism, mayhem, and destruction).

–Matt Griffin

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