Phil on Film Index

Tuesday, November 03, 2009

Review - Love Exposure (Ai no mukidashi)

If you only see one four-hour Japanese love story this year... well, I guess Love Exposure is your only option. There really is nothing else like it out there; an epic blend of low humour, theological inquiry, bloody violence and heartfelt romance. The gargantuan running time might make Sion Sono's film sound like a daunting prospect, but it shouldn't, because there isn't a slack minute to be found here, not a single moment when the director loses grip of his insanely convoluted story. In fact, my only complaint about the film is that the ending, when it finally arrives, felt a little abrupt; I hadn't noticed the hours passing, so engrossed was I in the fate of star-crossed lovers Yu (Takahiro Nishijima) and Yoko (Hikari Mitsushima). Love Exposure may be twice as long as the average movie, but it's also twice as good.
Love Exposure is essentially a story of boy meets girl, although it's not quite as simple as that, and the pair don't actually meet until almost an hour has elapsed, by which point we are already knee-deep in perversions and catholic guilt. Yu is the teenage son of a priest (Atsuro Watabe) who has become an increasingly distant and harsh father since his faith-shaking encounter with the promiscuous Kaori (Makiko Watanabe), and the youngster realises sin may be his salvation, allowing him to get closer to his father in the confessional. Petty crimes follow, but Yu really comes into his own when he discovers the world of tosatsu, or upskirt photography, and – in a series of hilarious sequences – he utilises ninja techniques to obtain his dirty pictures from unsuspecting females. This is just the beginning of his journey, though, and in due course, Yu will become a cross-dresser, a perverts' confessor, a porn industry idol, a killer, and he'll half-lose his mind – all in the name of love.

Two women appear in Yu's world around the same time, the aforementioned Yoko, a brawling schoolgirl to whom he instantly loses his heart, and Koike (Sakura Ando), the mysterious white-clad figure who stalks him with her female posse. Synopsising Love Exposure beyond this point is a near-impossible task, but the miracle of the film is how Sono juggles his multiple characters and storylines, flashbacks and fantasy sequences, and wild tonal shifts, while maintaining such narrative clarity. Even as the story pulls in a variety of directions at once, it never loses its way or causes confusion. This is partly down to the director's absolute control of his picture, but it's largely down to the fact that all of the craziness is built around a pure and emotionally resonant through-line; a love story involving sin and deviancy that somehow manages to retain a beguiling innocence.

The ensemble cast is superb as a whole, but the three young actors who play the central characters are worthy of being singled out for the highest praise. They are asked by Sono to give performances of extraordinary range and depth, to portray characters who each come saddled with their own complex histories, and they respond magnificently. Sakura Ando has perhaps the trickiest task, in a role that exists as little more than an intriguing enigma for much of the film, before her motivations are revealed and the gaps shaded in later on. Likewise, the androgynous and awkward Nishijima is given plenty to do, having to be a sympathetic romantic lead, a convincing woman and an adept comic actor – all tasks he pulls off with great aplomb. He instantly makes the viewer care deeply about the outcome of his arduous romantic odyssey, particularly as Yoko is the sparkling prize at the end of it. Hikari Mitsushima gives perhaps my favourite performance in the film, a radiant presence both as a picture of sweetness – the Blessed Virgin of Yu's dreams – and as a feisty, no-nonsense scrapper who can take on an army of thugs. Who on earth wouldn't fall in love with her?

And who wouldn't fall for this movie? Some people may still balk at the running time, but that's their loss, because it's not the length that matters, it's what Sono does with it that matters. Given four hours of screen time to play with, he makes every second count, with direction that is ceaselessly witty and imaginative, and the result is an exhilarating and unique cinematic experience. Erection jokes, religious cults, schoolgirl fantasies and dismemberment – nothing is off-limits in Sono's world, and nothing is sacred. No other film this year has surprised me or delighted me as consistently as Love Exposure, and no other film has left me feeling as euphoric afterwards as this utterly brilliant Japanese oddity. It is a masterpiece, the best film of the year so far, and a movie that completely rewards anyone willing to invest their time in it. Trust me, the four hours fly by.