Sunday, October 24, 2010

REVIEW: Strange Circus

奇妙なサーカス (Kimyô na sâkasu)

Released: 2005

Sion Sono

Masumi Miyazaki
Issei Ishida
Rie Kuwana
Mai Takahashi

Running time: 108 min.

Reviewed by Bob Turnbull

When I mentioned to fellow Pow-Wow contributor Matt Hardstaff that I was going to watch Sion Sono's 2005 film "Strange Circus" this week, he gave me an interesting comparison point to Sono's latest venture: "It's like "Cold Fish" on acid". Having just seen that particular blast of fearless phenomenal filmmaking at this year's Toronto International Film festival, I was rather puzzled. "But, but...", I stammered in response, "how can that be? "Cold Fish" was on acid!". Maybe it was an "Inception" type of multi-layered effect - what happens if you take acid while already on acid while in a dream? Well, I suppose you might end up with something like "Strange Circus".

I don't mean to overemphasize the drug angle here since the film does have an overall arc, structure and focus, but after a bright red screen opening quote from Huysmans' "Against The Grain" (considered to be a novel without a plot or any structure) about a girl severing a man's head and bringing it to her mother, a brief interlude at a circus like show that invites its bored, costumed audience to kill themselves on stage and a young girl's walk through a completely blood-red smeared hallway, the hallucinogenic quality of the movie is pretty apparent. The film's method of disorienting the viewer by showing scenes that could be from dreams, in progress novels, past experiences or current reality certainly is a challenge to follow at times, but the bigger challenge is dealing with the central concept of a man who sexually and mentally abuses his wife and twelve year-old daughter. Mitsuko not only has to deal with her father as her school principal (where he televises his daily speeches to classrooms like a grand overlord), but with his whims at home as well. He forces her to watch (from the inside of a cello case) the vigorous sex he has with her mother Sayuri and then makes them switch roles. Mitsuko feels like she and her Mom are almost merging into one person - she had earlier in the film expressed the thought that "I was born to my mother as she awaited execution. I've been standing in for her there ever since." - and believes that she is looking more and more like her.

Given that, while watching from inside the cello case, Sayuri sees herself having sex with her husband. It's a clever trick by Sono since this not only avoids any exploitative shots of Mitsuko with her father, but helps to emphasize the subservient roles many females are forced into in a strongly patriarchal society - roles that seem to be handed down from one generation of women to another. However, the film displaces us again by jumping to the wheelchair bound Taeko as she shows her latest novel to a group of editors. The story of her book is everything we've seen in the film so far. So has this all been from her imagination? Or is she the grown up Mitsuko working out her past in literary form? Or is it some odd mixture of truth and delusion? She is drawn to a young editor named Yuji who becomes a personal assistant of sorts for her, but, as we've already become accustomed to in the film, neither may really be what they claim to be.

As with many of his other films, he uses repeated, delicate and well known musical themes to underscore certain moments and to build levels of tension. This time he calls on Bach, Liszt and Debussy to provide his soundtrack. Sono also packs some truly beautiful images into what is overall a truly disturbing and unsettling film. He never loses sight of engaging the viewer, though, and doesn't resort to cheap exploitation in order to get across actions of incredible human degradation. Actions that have their consequences for all the parties involved. It's yet another example of how Sono has become one of the most interesting, fascinating and completely fearless filmmakers around these days.

Read more from Bob Turnbull at his blog.

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