Sion Sono‘s “Love Exposure” is a film that, upon its conclusion, feels as if you’ve spanned the globe to tell its narrative. So broad is its scope -- addressing topics like religion, incest and murder -- that the film never once seems like its staying in one place, so hyperactive and eager to stimulate. Sion, who grows with each new picture, has begun to resemble a more mature sibling to fellow countryman Takashi Miike, not ignoring narrative so much as sliding it to the side, creating a believable marriage between absurd form and weighty content.
“Love Exposure” begins with an aggressively dysfunctional father-son relationship. Mother’s death leads Dad to the ministry, where he becomes a stern taskmaster, forcing a relationship with God by stringently disciplining his son Yu. Much of “Love Exposure” deals with the relationships that happen by force, as Dad’s shotgun wedding to Christianity mirrors his succumbing to the wiles of a sumptuous local girl, who wears down his defenses into an uneasy marriage.
Yu attempts to develop his own personality, but ends up falling in with the wrong crowd. At first, he misbehaves in order to attend confession, the better to develop a connection with Dad. Soon, he’s lost the meaning of right and wrong completely, and engages in a theater of the absurd. Being in Japan, his path of enlightenment guides him to a covert group of ninja-like photographers who procure upskirt shots of local teenagers through flips, dips and pratfalls. Because, of course.
This narrative journey is only one of several chapters in the film. The first half concerns backstory that sets up a “miracle,” that being the collision of our main characters who have since only peripherally been involved with each others’ lives. Once we meet Koike, the girl who severed her abusive father’s penis (which results in a J-horror-style squirting geyser of blood), and Yoko, who seeks to destroy all men (with as much martial art as possible), the storylines converge, making the non-sequitur-packed first half something of a prologue.
In a massive park brawl, where our characters finally come face to face, love blossoms between Yu and Yoko. Unfortunately, in a bit of a narrative sidetrack that’s too ludicrous to explain, he is dressed as a woman, heading up a fake gang and calling himself Miss Scorpion. So begins this journey of sexuality and self-doubt, where Yoko wonders if she’s truly a lesbian now that she’s met someone male to love. Meanwhile, Yu struggles with the fact that she’s not interested in his male alter ego, further confused by their parents eloping.
To recount the story of “Love Exposure” is a task that would take nearly as long as the film’s almost four hour runtime. What’s delightful about such a length is the fact that not a moment drags as we get to know everything about our wayward youths. Each one is given the respect of a lead character, which matters heavily if we are to take into account the melodramatic final hour, which converges on a cult. As such, every decision each character makes is given equal dramatic weight, though Sion can’t help but have a laugh at Yu’s sexual frustration (poor Takahiro Nishijimi probably has the record for most erections in a non-pornographic film). Sono’s film manages to treat its characters with respect despite their mostly absurd connections.
Sono is less concerned with the look and texture of the picture than he is with content, probably what holds him back from being a major director on the global stage and what limits the appeal of “Love Exposure.” At the close of this four hour experiment in narrative, our characters, who have allowed themselves to be victims, finally take charge of their circumstances, but given the obstacles present, it’s almost an eleventh hour (literally) excursion into the borderline supernatural. Indeed, Sion may have stacked the deck against our characters way too much to find an accurate release, a meaningful catharsis for this journey. In the end, “Love Exposure” seems more concerned with torturing our characters than it is with allowing their exposure. But what exhilarating torture it is. [B+]
"Love Exposure" opens this Friday at New York City's Cinema Village.