What would you say if I told you that one of the best films of the year is a four-hour movie about a cross-dressing kid whose life ambition is to be the very best upskirt panty photographer of all time?
And, no, it’s not “The Harry Knowles Story”.
When I went to the FanTasia Festival in Montreal back in 2003, one of the movies that made an impression on audiences, leading to rabid word of mouth that led me to check out the second screening, was “Suicide Club,” a film that has only grown better in memory. That word of mouth is one of my favorite things about being at a festival. Having that conversation with someone who tells you that you absolutely have to see something if you can. I’ve taken advice and seen some things I’ve loved that I would have otherwise missed. But I’ve also taken advice and seen insufferable misfires as a result, walking out confused about why anyone would recommend the film to another person. I’m always happy to give somebody else’s favorite a try at a festival… it’s the whole point of being there.
At Fantastic Fest this year, this was that movie. It screened twice, and after that first screening, I had several friends tell me how much they liked it. And since it was from the same director of “Suicide Club,” I suspected that it was probably a wild ride of some sort. Still, when I was getting my tickets for the next day, I had a choice between “Love Exposure” or “Mandrill,” and I got a ticket for “Mandrill” originally. When I ran into the Drafthouse’s Matthew Kiernan, I told him what my choice had been.
“You chose wrong. ‘Love Exposure.’ Seriously.”
Alright. Fine. I’ll admit that the four-hour length was the stumbling block at first, which is silly. After all, I was seeing four or five movies every day anyway, so why should I care if four hours of my day is made up of one movie or two? I’m still in a theater for more than four hours, right?
In the end, I’m glad I took the advice, because if I hadn’t, I would have missed out on this unusual, surprisingly profound, hilarious, profane story of love, deception, faith, and fetish. As much as I liked and admired the work of Sion Sono before, I am convinced now that he’s a significant voice in modern Japanese genre films, and that the movies he’s making deserve a wider audience than they’ll ever find.
“Love Exposure” tells the story of a young man named Yu (Takahiro Nishijima) whose father Tetsu (Atsuro Wasabe) becomes a priest after the death of his mother when Yu is very young. It’s a coping mechanism, a way to turn completely to God to make sense of a loss, and for a while, Yu and his father get along fine. Then Saori (Makiko Watanabe) wanders into Tetsu’s church one morning, disheveled and dirty and crying, and the words of Tetsu’s sermon shake her so profoundly that she becomes convinced that she has to become a Christian, and more than that, she has to become Tetsu’s lover. Tetsu isn’t equipped to deal with a voracious attention-parasite like Saori, and she slowly but surely turns him away from a pure idea of God, warping him with her demands and desires. Just when he’s fully on the hook, she grows bored, and she leaves him for another man.
Tetsu reacts by becoming a demanding ultra-strict fantatic for confession, and he starts to warp Yu with his constant demands for Yu to confess sins that he hasn’t even committed. Yu wants to please his father. He wants to ease Tetsu’s pain. He wants to be the sinner his father is convinced he’s become, but he’s a genuinely sweet and innocent kid, so nothing he has to confess is good enough. Yu falls in with some rough friends, desperate to sin, and when he does finally find his calling, it’s the ultimate example of a win-win situation: it’s something he is so good at that no one else can compare, and it’s also something so depraved that his father flips out, convinced Yu has become an irredeemable pervert.
Yu is the best upskirt panty photographer in the world.
It’s a gift, really. He is practically an upskirt panty ninja. He does so well that he starts his own video line, and he ends up hiring and training his friends, who see his skills as almost supernatural. Yu’s father recoils in horror from each fresh confession, and Yu feels better and better since he’s finally giving his father some real sins to condemn. He sees his sin as a gift he’s giving to his dad, and each new transgression makes him feel better and better about himself.
One afternoon, he’s out with his buddies, feeling great about himself, when he walks into the middle of a fight where a group of thugs are trying to rough up a girl named Yoko (Hikari Mitsushima), who was abused as a girl and who subsequently does her best to fight or hurt every guy she can get her hands on. Yu jumps in and helps kick some butt.
The weird part is that Yu is dressed in drag as a woman named “Miss Scorpion.”
The even weirder part is that Yoko and “Miss Scorpion” fall in love at first sight.
As soon as they make eye contact, we get the main title up finally. “Love Exposure.” Sure, it’s an hour into the movie, but it makes perfect emotional sense, and it got a round of applause for sheer audacity when it happened. I like that the title doesn’t show up until all the pieces in this crazy chess game are on the table and in play. Over the next three hours, the unconventional love story between Yu and Yoko turns into one of the most unlikely love stories I’ve seen play out in a while, but also one of the most authentic. So often, movies turn love into a series of convenient moments, coincidence piled on top of contrivance, and in “Love Exposure,” Sion Sono seems determined to use the difficulty of love as a way into a larger discussion about a dozen different big ideas.
The control we give technology over our lives, the way people use religion to escape unhappiness or sorrow, the way faith can be twisted… Sono never just settles on one target, instead using this sprawling narrative to explore all of these ideas fully. I can’t imagine seeing a cut of this film that is shorter or less nuanced… all that room to explore is part of why it works. If he decided to just tell one very narrow story, he would have to lose everything else, and that wouldn’t be the same film at all. “Love Exposure” sounds like a big pervy crazy film, but in the end, it’s very much about love as a sacred thing, worth fighting for, and there is an innocence to the movie that I didn’t expect.
There is no US distributor yet, but I’m hoping someone at least makes the committment for home video. The film has played well at every festival where it’s shown up, and I do think there’s an audience for this. Adventurous audiences who are willing to look past the surface description of the film will find themselves rewarded with something richer, more heartfelt, and braver than almost anything else I’ve seen this year.
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