Monday, December 19, 2011

REVIEW: Guilty of Romance

恋の罪 (Koi no Tsumi)

Released: 2011

Sion Sono

Miki Mizuno
Makoto Togashi
Megumi Kagurazaka
Kazuya Kojima
Kanji Tsuda

Running time: 112 min.

Reviewed by Chris MaGee

On March 19th, 1997 the body of a woman was found in cheap apartment in Shibuya's love hotel district of Maruyama-cho. Police indentified the woman as Yasuko Watanabe, a 39-year-old employee of the Tokyo Electric Power Company, as well a graduate of Tokyo's prestigious Keio University. What was such an upstanding citizen doing in a dumpy apartment in Maruyama-cho, and area that in the late 1990's had become a place were street hookers plied their trade. It turned out that Watanabe was in fact one of those street hookers. It wasn't financial necessity or drugs that led Watanabe to a life of prostitution though. Apparently this well-bred woman had turned to selling sex purely for the cheap thrills and a bit of pocket money. The sexual and psychological mystery of why an upstanding citizen would risk everything to be a hooker forms the basis of Sion Sono's "Guilty of Romance". Sono takes the TEPCO OL Murder Case and does with it was he has done in all his films since his critically-lauded 2008 4-hour psycho-religious epic "Love Exposure" -- he turns the emotional volume up to 11 and leaves it there. It's not good enough for Sono to have his wayward women, 29-year-old Izumi and 39-year-old Mitsuko, die at the hands of a Nepalese restaurant worker (which is how real-life victim Watanabe died). Instead we are given a tour of the dark side of female sexuality, although often not a very believable one.

Izumi (Megumi Kagurazaka) is the dutiful wife of popular novelist Yukio Kikuchi ( Kanji Tsuda). Dressed in a proper kimono in public and conservative cardigans at home Izumi has taken on the demeanor of a woman easily 15-years her senior - she arranges her husband's slippers, she buys him expensive French soaps, she sits quietly on the couch as he reads and leaves his bookstore signings early so as not to be in the way. Their relationship is cold, clinical and chaste, and obviously the beautiful Izumi is bored senseless. She confesses in her journal that before she turns 30 that she would like to do something, anything with her life. She takes steps towards this by taking a job in a grocery store handing out samples of sausages. She's a bit too timid to make the position work, but it's here that she meets Eri (Chika Uchida), a woman who runs a "modeling" agency. Yes, Eri's modeling agency does do some legit work, but the lion's share of its business is shooting porn. This begins the slippery sexual slope that eventually liberates Izumi and leads her to the seedy streets of Maruyama-cho.

It is here amongst the neon and the love hotels that Izumi encounters Mitsuko (Makoto Togashi), Sono's cinematic version of Yasuko Watanabe. Mitsuko is, like Watanabe, a professional from a good background. She is the daughter of a painter and holds a position as a professor of literature at a respect university. Underneath her prim, if sometimes intense, exterior is a nymphomaniac prostitute with a rock solid work ethic. Mitsuko will have sex with any man as long as she is paid for it, regardless of the sum. It's the principle that counts. She takes the already unbalanced Izumi as her apprentice and the two women begin to plumb the depths of their libidos in the back streets of Shibuya. All of this action takes place through flashback as Sono occasionally (maybe a little too occasionally) shows us Detective Kazuko Yoshida (Miki Mizuno) as she investigates the murder of an unidentified and horribly mutilated woman in Maruyama-cho. Headless, and limbless, torn in two with her upper and lower halves mixed and matched with mannequin parts Yoshida (and us in the audience) puzzles over who this woman was - Izumi or Mitsuko?

Once again Sion Sono, who has taken up the mantle of Japanese odd and extreme film king from the now mainstream Takashi Miike, brings his frantic creativity to a film that in no way shirks from its sexual foundations. In this respect "Guilty of Romance" is refreshing, given that Japan has in large part dampened sex in its contemporary cinema in favour of having respectable female spokespeople for commercial campaigns, TV panel shows and coy J-pop recordings. Sono's film, complete with full frontal nudity by its two leading ladies, is definitely a throwback to the kinky sexuality of films like Masaru Konuma's "Flower and Snake" or Takashi Ishii's "Angel Guts: Red Vertigo". It's no coincidence that both of these preceding films were produced by Nikkatsu, the same studio that now brings us Sono's film as well as a slew of blood and boob filled exploitation titles through its extreme genre wing Sushi Typhoon. Unlike many of Nikkatsu's Sushi Typhoon titles, "Guilty of Romance" has some serious psycho-sexual pretensions, but it doesn't always live up to them.

Without the mystery of which of our two anti-heroines may have ended up choped into bits there is little to propel the narrative of "Guilty of Romance" forward. "How low can they go?" and "How nude will they get?" only keeps the attention of the audience (a primarily male one, we can assume) for so long. Despite its attempts at some deep emotional and sexual surrealism "Guilty of Romance" is, at its heart, nothing more than another tired example of the classic patriarchal virgin/ whore duality that lurks in men's minds and that has seeded a whole subgenre or pink and ero-guro films in Japan. There are moments when "Guilty of Romance" manages to truly titillate and/ or make us squirm. A scene in which Izumi stands naked in front of a full length mirror and practices selling herself rather than mini sausage samples is equal parts campy comedy, disturbing character development and pure masturbatory fodder. Later on the appearance of Mitsuko's mother (Hisako Ohkata) gives Sono's films its most intense anbd truly surreal sequence during which this old, smiling woman delivers a shocking, bile-fueled indictment of her prostitute daughter in the most pleasing and dainty way possible. had Sono been able to deliver more of this kind of sickly subtlety throughout different points in "Guilty of Romance" he would have had a truly special film. Sadly, Sono has seemingly abandoned subtley after such rare entires into his filmography as "Hazard" and "Be Sure to Share". Now we have women set to rutting feverishly on screen and in one case screaming the word "Sex!" at the door of a potential horny client. We get it, Sono-san, ytou are a cinematic bad boy, one who gives us geysers of blood and buxom actresses urinating in front of school boys (as happens near the end of "Guilty of Romance"). You can definitely shock us... but what other tricks do you have up your sleeve? We know there's more, but this film wasn't all of it.