By Kevin Jagernauth | The Playlist May 21, 2011 at 5:53AM
"Love Exposure" recently screened in a one-week run at Cinefamily in Los Angeles. Further U.S. engagements are yet to be determined.
When a film has a ballooned running time, it automatically becomes a bit of a Holy Grail for cinephiles. Three hours is generally considered a thoroughly sufficent time to sit in a dark room and tell a story of the most epic proportions. So when something goes beyond that time it deservedly gets a raised eyebrow. But if it reaches a certain level of notorious greatness, it becomes an experience. Devoting your day to a screening of "Shoah" or "Satantango" has supposedly huge benefits and at least gives you something to boast about to your cinephile pals.
This writer is always intrigued by these challenges (I have yet to see either of those films mentioned above and would love to) but thinks that it's called a challenge for a reason. Alfred Hitchcock may have been on to something when he said, "The length of a film should be directly related to the endurance of the human bladder." The fact of the matter is that it goes against cinema's form to do a movie of that length. Cinema is not a novel where you can pick it up wherever and whenever suits you to find out the various backstories of the people and places the protagonist passed on the way to the next major event. With movies, one is meant to sit down and take in a story in one sitting. When the act of sitting gets uncomfortable, then you tend to get distracted from the story.
And its a shame because then the challenge becomes the story itself, as is the case with the four-hour 2008 Japanese film "Love Exposure." This movie could've gotten major international attention and maybe even enjoyed a strong limited release. But it's been on the shelf (at least for American audiences, apparently it played in Japan for months) because of its daunting running time. It's a pity because the movie is so delightfully weird and entertaining that labeling the film Cinephiles Only on account of its length really limits what could have been a wider audience.
At its heart, Sion Sono's film is a demented romance movie where the adversities love has to face are Catholic guilt, Japanese perversion, mistaken identity, a cult, and mental illness. Takahiro Nishijima plays Yu whose father is a Catholic priest. After a brief affair that proves him a hypocrite, his father wants to take out his self-pity and anger on his son by making him confess daily. The problem being that Yu has very little to confess. So in an attempt to impress his father, he joins a gang of hooligans to commit sins that he can confess. One thing leads to another and he eventually becomes an expert in the seemingly martial art of taking upskirt photos. Fast forward a little later and Yu's lost a bet with his friends based on the photos and now he has to go into town dressed as a woman looking for a girl to kiss. He does so reluctantly because he is saving his first kiss (and everything else) for "his Maria" (his mother was a devout Catholic and before she died gave him a little statue of Mother Mary telling him to give it to a girl who is worthy). While on the town as a very convincing woman, he encounters a young woman in a schoolgirl uniform taking on a huge mob of guys in a fight. She starts off the fight by telling God to forgive "these morons" while someone puts a veil on her to make her look like the Virgin Mary. During the fight, Yu can't help but peek at her panties while she's kicking and twirling in her revealing outfit. "Next moment, I was in love," he tells us and the movie cuts to black while the title blasts on screen. We are an hour into the movie.
That first hour is brilliantly funny, hugely entertaining, and incredibly intriguing. There's even a great device employed at that time counting down to "the miracle". "365 more days until the miracle," the film tells us all the way down to 3 minutes. So when the title card announces that we have gone to the miracle and that that was all set-up for things to come, one feels a huge wave of exhilaration and excitement for things to come. And the film uses that sense of anticipation for the next hour where we have new narrators introduced to us and we get their backstories that lead them to be at that fateful fight, even revealing events we saw from the first hour through a new vantage point. One thinks that perhaps this could be a film that warrants its excessive running time, if it continues as this fun, kaleidoscopic ouroboros. In fact, this writer would suggest that the first two hours form easily the best movie of the year.
Unfortunately, it runs out of steam sometime after that. Instead of that breathless need to tell the whole story in the style of a novel that's employed in the first two hours, some of the characters take a back seat for a plot that gets weirder, but not necessarily bigger. In fact, out of all the adjectives to describe "Love Exposure," "epic" isn't one of them. This is not a generations-spanning story like "The Best of Youth." This more like a straightforward narrative without a proper editor. Certain tracks and motifs seem to be put on loop, things that were once inventive but then slowly start to wear out their welcome, including the use of Beethoven's "Symphony No. 7" and a powerful erection. However, there are scenes in the second half of the film that approach the transcendence of the first with newfound humanity, including a touching moment of silence that comes on a beach. But they can't help but be bogged down by the bludgeoning whole.
The group that organized this film's limited run in Los Angeles made sure this was an experience. During intermission, you could get ramen and free sake. The curator excitedly told us about the backstory to the project including how the producers wanted Sono to cut the 200-plus page script down during the month-long shoot and how he not only didn't do that but added 300 pages during that time (the original cut was six hours long). Impressive as all that is, one can only imagine what this boundlessly inventive writer-director could've done if he had taken his time to truly get his movie down to a reasonable (two-and a half to three hours) length. It wouldn't have been a huge challenge, it may have stopped it being identified as a cinephile's curio, and it could've been a masterpiece. [B] -- Hayden Maxwell