By Andrew Grant
(also appeared on GreenCine Daily)
[NB: Sion Sono was in New York last week for the New York Asian Film Festival, promoting his two latest films, Love Exposure and Be Sure to Share. I had a chance to sit down with him and discuss these films as well as his career as a whole, but our time was cut short owing to an overbooked schedule. Our too-brief interview was mostly spent discussing Love Exposure.—Andrew Grant]
Japanese director Sion Sono is fascinated with borderlines. Whether addressing love and hate, good and evil, the individual versus society, or even the distinction between art and commerce, it's the precarious balance between the two that defines and runs through most of his work.
Though he's directed nearly twenty films over the past thirty years, Sono's work remains relatively unknown in the States outside of the fanboy/J-Horror circle, with whom he made a splash in 2001 with the cult film Suicide Club. Several other titles have found a life on DVD, but unlike his peer Takashi Miike, he's never found acceptance from the arthouse crowd. However, that may change with Love Exposure, his 2008 four-hour near-masterpiece that has been picking up praise and awards at festivals worldwide, and which was a surprise hit at the Japanese box office.
Sono's first love was poetry, and by the age of seventeen his work had already appeared in several prestigious journals. Dropping out of college, Sono began making 8mm films including
I am Sion Sono!!
(1985), a thirty-minute DIY self-portrait that incorporates his avant-garde poetry, and which had its premiere at the
PIA Film Festival
. What it lacks in technical expertise it more than makes up for in youthful rebellious spirit, and was his earliest example of the struggle with individualism in a society built on collective thought.
Several other experimental films followed, including A Man's Hanamichi (1987), which won the Grand Prize at PIA, and his first feature, Bicycle Sighs (1990), an autobiographical coming-of-age story that found success on the international festival circuit. “When I first started making films, I was working more in an arthouse genre, and interested in artistic self-expression,” Sono told me. One of his best, but criminally underseen films from that period is My Name is Keiko (1997), a powerful study on loss and grieving that consists entirely of an internal monologue by a young woman who has become obsessed with time since the loss of her father to cancer.
Things changed for Sono with the release of Suicide Club (2001), which had its international premiere at Rotterdam, and has found great success on DVD worldwide. A darkly comedic essay on fad obsession, its tongue-in-cheek premise of teenagers killing themselves en masse unfortunately gives way to an overly-convoluted and ultimately unsatisfying second half, but still remains oddly compelling.
Sono's career would take a decidedly different turn from this point forward.
“With the success of Suicide Club, I wanted to find the commonality between entertainment and expression,” Sono says, and this perfectly describes the films of this period. From the teen drama Noriko's Dinner Table (2005) (a sequel of sorts to Suicide Club), the dysfunctional family theatrics of Strange Circus (2005), the fiercely independent, New York City-based Hazard (2005), to the straight-up J-Horror of Exte: Hair Extensions (2007), there's an aesthetic and stylistic individuality to each film such that one might never guess they came from the same hand. Thematically, however, all contain his signature subjects-the relationship between individual expression and societal expectation, teen angst and rebellion, and the psychologically damaging effects of a dysfunctional family.
Love Exposure, Sono's four-hour excursion into perversion, sin, guilt, and the power of love is a treatise on all these themes—and more. Nearly impossible to adequately summarize, this oversized dramedy follows the lives of five damaged individuals and their often twisted relationships with religion, be it Catholic Church or dubious cult. Angelic teenager Yu is the son of Tetsu, a recently ordained Catholic priest grappling with an inability to maintain his vow of chastity thanks to Saori, a seductress who wishes to be cleansed of her sins. Transferring his own guilt onto his son, Tetsu forces Yu to confess his sins daily, though the pure-hearted boy has done nothing worthy of confession. Seeking sin, he falls in with a gang that teaches him the fine art of clandestine upskirt photography. After becoming a master voyeur, Yu meets Koike, a cocaine-dealing founding member of the cult-like Zero Church who will have a powerful impact on all their lives. Finally there's Yuko, man-hating step-daughter of Saori, who Yu believes is his own Virgin Mary. And that's just the first hour.
Sono's original cut of the film clocked in at six hours. “I started from the opposite point of view,” he explains. “Why can't films vary in length like novels? A RomCom can be an epic length without being an epic.” At the request of his producer, Sono agreed to a compromised running time (a somewhat more theater-friendly 237 minutes). That it achieved box-office success came as a surprise to all involved.
Poking fun at Christianity is nothing new in Japanese popular culture, yet Sono insists he wasn't taking shots at the Catholic Church, or religion as a whole. “The reason it's set in a Christian household is more metaphorical," Sono says. "I wanted a strict father figure, an ultimate authority who teaches good and evil, and a son easily molded by those influences. I've had personal experiences with fickle judgments—where, depending on mood, black can turn into white and vice versa. Tetsu represents this. He uses the authority of the lord, telling Yu it's God's will, when it's really just his own.”
Sono isn't a Christian, and he draws a sharp distinction between Christ the man and the religion based on his teachings. “I'm a member of the Jesus Christ fan club. The line in the film about him being as cool as Kurt Cobain—that's my view. He's in the same category as John Lennon as an object of admiration. Reading the New Testament is like reading a biography of a rock star.”
Yet the existence of The Zero Church in the film (a highly structured corporate-like cult that bears more than a passing similarity to Scientology) would indicate that religion is more than just a metaphor. Sono sees little difference between cults and organized religion: “They both take what's useful and convenient for their own objectives.”
Carefully sorting through Love Exposure's plenteous and complex ideas—which include incest, gender and sexual identity issues, blackmail, castration and pornography (to name but a few)—it seems the film boils down to a single key moment in which Yuko dramatically recites a passage from Corinthians. Sono agreed with me: “During filming, I knew that that this scene was absolutely critical, and would determine whether the film would succeed or fail.” That Love Exposure hinges on a single philosophical absolute about love might seem hackneyed, but after four hours of hell its bit of heaven is more than earned.
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