Rollercoaster of Love
Sion Sono has become rather prolific lately, and I'm not complaining. This is his second major Western release of 2011 (following Cold Fish), and his most recent film Himizu received enthusiastic feedback from critics at Venice (also, somewhat accidentally, becoming the first major post Earthquake film fron Nippon). But before we get to see that, Eureka have released Guilty of Romance. It's the third part of a very rough thematic trilogy of films about the various different forms hate can take - Cold Fish and the brilliantly unwieldy Love Exposure being its predecessors. And boy oh boy, this is a film full of hate.
The story opens with detective Kazuko (Miki Mizuno) being called to a frankly horrific murder scene. If dead bodies upset you, prepare to be violently ill here - the images of decomposing flesh are deeply disturbing. Kazuko's role has been significantly cut down for this release, so lengthy flashbacks to two other women dominate the film. There's a protagonist of sorts in Izumi (Megumi Kagurazaka); the wife of a famous novelist who lives a life of bored servitude. The most demanding task of the day is calibrating her husband's slippers. After taking a job at a nearby supermarket just to get out of the house, she is spotted by a modelling agent who invites her to partake in a photo shoot. However, it transpires the shoot is actually one for soft pornography. Initially reluctant to participate, Izumi ultimately feels liberated by the encounter and engages in a series of casual sexual encounters. One day, she travels to Shibuya where she is seduced by a mysterious man in a bowler hat, who whisks her off to a love hotel. There, he sexually abuses and humiliates her. Wandering around in a daze, Izumi bumps into the larger-than-life Mitsuko (Makoto Togashi): a charismatic university lecturer who moonlights as a prostitute. She leads Izumi on a disturbing journey full of surrealism, sexual encounters, shocking revelations and - ultimately - violence.
Of the many things that differentiate Guilty of Romance from the pack is the utter joylessness of the film. After early scenes of liberation, this tale is largely devoid of happiness. Sex, Mitsuko teaches Izumi, is a tool, something to be exploited for money (Sono critiquing the porn and sex trades in the process). There's no joy to be found in it, no 'love'. The sex is brutal and profoundly unerotic - surprisingly graphic, too, considering the harsh censorship laws in Japan. As a descent into the strange purgatory that is Shibuya's love hotel district, it's fascinating. The film is rarely less than intense, and Sono's fondness for the odd visual flight of fancy is welcome. A character who walks around squirting neon pink paint on people and surroundings makes for some particularly memorable sights. No stranger to shocking the audience - the gory prologue of Suicide Club, finally released on Region 2 DVD a few weeks ago, still lingers - even the most desensitized of audience members will find this tough going at times.
Like all Sono films, Guilty of Romance is pretty fucking messy. While his films are rarely less than compelling, it's pretty obvious at this stage that he's not one for traditional structure, and his films can feel rather loose as a result. With the UK theatrical just passing the two hour mark (the Japanese one is longer at 144 minutes), it's notably shorter than his recent films. But there's still a lot of ideas, and the frequent moment where the viewer will wonder where all this is going. And, yes, it can be hard to pick out the meaning amongst the increasingly nightmarish events. Some twists and turns are downright unconvincing, including a shock revelation which probably won't come across as shocking to many.
But many of the ideas stick and resonate. Accusations of misogyny will be made, but those people may not have paid enough attention. Sure, women are subject to extremely vile acts throughout the film. But they're also independent, powerful characters. And the men are shown as a foul bunch - few of them are anything other than selfish, and all are exploiting the women in various degrading ways. It all comes back to the key thematic concern of the film, and the 'trilogy' as a whole: hate. These people hate life, and hate other people. In the absence of happiness, they seek whatever twisted pleasure they can find.
The various lifestyle decisions characters in Guilty of Romance make are shown as shallow, unrewarding and destructive ways of life. It isn't meant as a realistic critique - everything is illustrated in broad, cartoonish strokes. And that's what makes the film a fascinating and deeply uneven experience. There are fresh ideas presented every step of the way, and the viewer is forced to engage with them through Sono's take-no-prisoners directorial style. Guilty of Romance is a grim and exhausting film, but it also shows a director who makes his points like no other. It may not be his masterpiece (Love Exposure remains the highlight of this particular trio), but GoR will beat you into submission. And it's all the better for it.