The following is a reprint from of our review from VIFF last year.
For this writer, 2010 has been a stellar year at the movies and it's almost entirely thanks to arthouse and foreign cinema. So, yeah, the recent output from Hollywood has been uninspired even more than normal (except for the obvious successes: "Toy Story 3," "Inception," 'Scott Pilgrim', "The Social Network"), but instead of bitching about it, the best idea is to look elsewhere. In the process, director discoveries are often made, and it's one of the most exciting parts of cinephilia.
Shion Sono, from Japan, is one such filmmaker. Thanks to an all-region DVD player (the film is available on Region 2; hopefully it gets a proper release here), I accessed his brilliant four-hour upskirt photography epic "Love Exposure." Sono packs so much meaty subject matter into the film -- love, lust, greed, family, loss, regret, fate, religion -- and breaks it up in chapters as it introduces the key players. If that run time worries you, fear not, there's not an ounce of fat in the film; seriously, it would be worse if it lost anything.
"Love Exposure" is the cure for anyone bored with the empty, over-the-top gore-fests like "Versus," "Tokyo Gore Police" and "Machine Girl" that have gained some level of cult status, but offer little else of interest besides repetitive limb chopping, arterial sprays and a pseudo-transgressive bent.
It's a complicated film to summarize: convoluted and melodramatic, the story is ostensibly about Yu, a deeply confused boy who loses his mother at an early age, and his father who, struggling to cope with the tragedy, becomes a devout Catholic priest. Yu wants to reach his dad, but can't lure his attention away from his new found calling. So he begins inventing sins to confess to his father, but he sees through the lies. Yu sets out to commit real sins, and finds his path leading towards theft, fighting and panty-shot photography. Only thing is, he's really good being a pervert, quickly recognized by his new friends as the best at the "art form." All this happens in the first hour, essentially a prologue. Pretty sure this film wins the award for longest time before the opening credits roll, beating out 'Eternal Sunshine' by a long shot.
The film is daring in its style and storytelling. Sono is uninterested in anything resembling mainstream, but that's not to say the film isn't entertaining because it's smart, thrilling, funny as hell; the kind of thing that, if you need a cinematic shot in the arm, will work as the antidote to "normal movies." 'Exposure' is stylish and violent, but will not wear your patience because Sono's such a visceral, uncompromising filmmaker (apparently he wanted to release the film in a six-hour cut, was then forced to cut it down to two, and eventually compromised back to four after that cut was deemed an incomprehensible mess). As a storyteller, Sono seems interested in characters on the fringe, but he really loves them, or at least empathizes with them all. "Love Exposure" is ultimately about the consequences of our actions, among many other things; it firmly asserts there's a reason for people being the way they are, and we should take the time to understand those reasons, even if you find them weird. That's a philosophy I can get behind.
Wouldn't you know it, four months after falling in love with the first film I'd seen from Sono, he's got a new title at Vancouver. "Cold Fish" shows the writer/director still interested in manipulation, religious iconography, weak-willed fathers, dead mothers and horribly cartoonish, hateful stepwives amongst all the blood-letting. Shamoto, an owner of a tropical fish shop, is struggling to find pleasure in his life. He's in a loveless marriage with his stepwife. Her effort in preparing a family meal says it all: she throws a bunch of processed food in the microwave. His teenage daughter is at a difficult age, unmoved by his attempts at reaching her, and never hangs around the house for long.
Shamoto (Mitsuru Fukikoshi gives a transformative, phenomenal performance) then meets Murata (former comedian Denden, also lights out, having a lot of fun in a terrifying role), a business rival with his own much more successful tropical fish shop. At first seeming like a nice guy who wants to help Shamoto and his family move up in the world, Murata offers a job at his shop to the daughter (he curiously has a lot of good-looking young girls working there), and quickly weasels his way in the family's life. The story kicks in when it's revealed that Murata is a serial killer and gangster, and along with his crazy wife, enjoys being a nasty sonofabitch who's very good at disposing of dead bodies.
What Sono does so well, at least in "Cold Fish" and "Love Exposure," is show the reasons behind everything the characters do. He is incapable of making a stock character; even if they seem one-note (like both of the wife characters) they're revealed eventually to be as complex as any living, breathing human being. When Shamoto's life begins spiraling out of his control as he gets sucked further along in to Murata's brutal wake, the film becomes horrific, but even more comedic.
Just when the film looks like it may spiral out of control (things get really, really messed up), Sono, like any good storyteller, pulls out a doozy of a scene and firmly places the audience back in his palm. You can never know where the story is going -- so rare these days -- but boy does it ever end memorably, in gore and viscera, as our hero, once a restrained, feeble man, becomes a monster himself. "Cold Fish" is bold, bleak and intense, but also thrilling. In short, nobody is making movies quite like this. [A-]