Love Exposure -- Film Review


Bottom Line: A giddy vaudeville of sex and religious perversion -- Japanese style.

TOKYO -- A priest's son embarks on a path of sin and panty photography motivated by confession-compulsion in "Love Exposure." Every genre is put through the blender in this smorgasbord of Japanese pop culture references and half-baked ideas on Christian guilt, institutional brainwashing, transvestitism, voyeurism, sex and violence. Improbable but rollicking plot twists make the marathon duration (3 hours, 57 minutes) fly by like a roller-coaster ride.

Since its premiere at Tokyo FILMeX, poet-turned-director Shion Sono has hit festival jackpot, nabbing several awards. While its length poses obstacles to commercial screenings, long DVD exposure is ensured.

Sono, whose grab-bag portfolio ("Strange Circus," "Noriko's Dining Table," "Exte") is by turns kitschy, pseudo-intellectual and occasionally sublime, pushes these traits to their extreme in "Love," achieving instant cult status. Though self-indulgent, its strange rationale is propelled by the cast who never misses a step while treading the line between parody and pathos.

Widowed Catholic priest Tetsu (Atsuro Watabe) begins a torrid affair with nymphomaniac Kaori (Makiko Watanabe). When Kaori leaves Tetsu, his piety turns sour and he extorts confessions from teenage son Yu (Takahiro Nishijima). Running out of sins to confess, Yu becomes the disciple of a kung-fu master specializing in the art of clandestine underwear photography.

The scenes of Yu and his gang sneaking their cameras under mini-skirts in public places are crowd-pleasing spoofs of vintage Toei B-movies and Hong Kong martial arts flicks while subverting the notorious image of Japanese "chikan" (voyeur-pervert) into that of social rebel.

While cross-dressing as Sasori (heroine of an '80s TV drama), Yu meets Kaori's step-daughter Yoko (Hikari Matsushima). Yu, who has an Oedipal complex, is love-struck because Yoko resembles his mother, whom he believes was the Virgin Mary. However, Yoko, who has an Electra complex, hates men, so Yu keeps up his disguise.

The connection between dysfunctional families and religious cults, explored in "Suicide Club" and "Noriko," is revealed in the role of Aya Koike (Sakura Ando). Abused by her father, whom she castrated in a lurid scene, Koike is sub-leader of a cult named Zero. She intercepts the protagonists' romance by converting not only Yoko, but Tetsu and Kaori. Yet, Koike's most wanted target Yu eludes her. Yu's battle for his loved ones' salvation climaxes in balletic blood-spilling.

The cast, a refreshing ensemble of veterans and total newcomers, makes a gradual transformation from self-conscious theatricality to fiercely real expressions of suffering and transcendence. Kudos to Sono for discovering Hikari Matsushima, who has a unique aura and masters the subtle dichotomies of Yoko's Madonna-whore persona.

The credibility of Matsushima's passion rises above the gimmicky direction and florid dialogue, especially when she recites Paul's letter to the Corinthians or when she confesses in the denouement, making those scenes ineffably touching and uplifting.

Despite pretensions to anarchy and nihilism, "Love Exposure" is not that radical amidst a maelstrom of social pathology, the proverbial quest for love underscores the narrative.
Intellectuals raised in a Judeo-Christian civilization may read Sono's satire on religious and sexual hang-ups as daring iconoclasm, when much probably springs from his misconceptions (such as Catholic priests having children -- many Japanese Buddhist and Shinto sects are hereditary). For him, religion is essentially a thematic hook to explore dependency and obsessive behavior, while his real concern is with breaking down Japan's herd mentality.

Venue: Tokyo FILMeX International Film Festival

Production: Omega Project, Studio Three Co.
Cast: Takahiro Nishijima, Hikari Mitsushima, Sakura Ando, Makiko Watanabe, Atsuro Watabe
Director-screenwriter: Shion Sono
Producer: Toyoyuki Yokohama, Shinya Kawai
Director of photography: Sohei Tanigawa
Production designer: Takashi Matsuzuka
Costume designer: Hitoki Higuchi
Music: Tomohide Harada
Editor: Junichi Ito
Sales: Phantom Film Co.
No rating, 237 minutes