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Love Exposure
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by Jay Seaver

"More movie greatness than most double features."
5 stars

SCREENED AT THE 2009 FANTASIA INTERNATIONAL FILM FESTIVAL: I recommend "Love Exposure", rather highly, in fact, but be warned: Maverick Japanese director Sion Sono has a rather singular vision, and his previous feature, the more or less mainstream horror-comedy "Hair Extensions", only gives audiences a glimpse of it. "Love Exposure", on the other hand, is an amazing mix of transgression, sweet romance, naughty slapstick, and out-there plotting. It's also nearly four intermission-free hours long, so before you sit down for this movie, you had better be committed to the Sion Sono experience.

It starts off relatively small: Yu Tsunoda's religious mother died when he was a boy, but before she went, she noted his fascination with the Virgin Mary and said she hoped he would find his own Mary someday. Those words would stick with Yu, especially after his grieving father Tetsu (Atsuro Watabe) becomes a Catholic priest. Eventually, when Yu (Takahiro Nishijima) is a teenager, two women do enter his life: Yoko (Hikari Mitsushima), the beautiful but man-hating girl he meets while dressed in drag for losing a bet with his friends, and Aya Hoike (Sakura Ando), who catches Yu and said friends doing upskirt photography but who, upon hearing Yu's motives, opts to keep an eye on him.

That may not seem like much of a start for such a sprawling movie, but I'm holding some details back - Sono structures the first hour or so of the movie by giving Yu, Hoike, and Yoko detailed introductions in turn, and too much background on any one of them could spoil the surprises in store for when we see how their stories connect. Suffice it to say that none of the three kids have an easy road to the points where they meet, as each is the victim of some form of physical, emotional, or sexual abuse. This isn't done just to play off our sympathy, though; the one whose abuse sets off the most visceral reactions is often the hardest to like. It mainly gives us a sense of just how thoroughly askew their perspectives have become, so that some of their more unusual actions become reasonable.

And Sono does have things get pretty wild at times. There are a number of images in Love Exposure that will make various audiences squirm, whether it be how he takes imagery from the Catholic Church and uses it in ways some may find blasphemous (a lot of it could come from other Christian sects, but the Tsunodas are specifically Catholic) or how he's quite willing to show and abuse the penis. For all the provocative things he does, though, there's a light-hearted, breezy counterpart. Yu's exploits in getting panty pictures are fun slapstick, for instance, and the domestic situation that Yu and Yoko find themselves in is something straight out of a sitcom. And when Hoike injects herself into it, it's a bit of plotting brilliance that seems obvious in retrospect but gets the audience excited for how the movie can jump next.

A big part of why the film works is that, even though much of it is larger-than-life in terms of being ridiculous or dramatic, Sono and his cast have a great read on teenagers: They've got enough life experience to know some things, and their bodies are telling them that they are ready to be adults, but they certainly don't know the limits of their knowledge and have a very childish selfishness. Even most of the angry and sarcastic ones have an enormous reservoir of optimism to tap into. That's true for Yu, especially; the guy is desperate to do the right or good thing, even if he has to tie his brain in metaphorical knots to decide what that is. Takahiro Nishijima captures that desperation, as well as the misguided joy that comes with an apparent solution. After Yu meets and falls for Yoko, we get the sense that his love for her is pure but alarming; it's close to religious devotion and obsession at times, and Nishijima does a wonderful job of staying on the edge. Hikari Mitsushima's Yoko, on the other hand, can appear two-faced at times, contemptuous of everybody but especially men, but enraptured when she meets and falls for "Miss Scorpion" (Yu in drag). Mitsushima completely nails how abrasive Yoko can be (very), but without contradiction exposes a sweetness that makes the audience absolutely hate how she is misled and used. Together, they create a teen romance for the ages: Like all first loves, it's more powerful than it would be for more experienced adults, but no less real because of that. It's also full of contradiction and deception, played out with plenty of passion and hurt.

That makes Koike the mean-girl queen bee of the group, and Sakura Ando fills it quite well, although it's not quite as exceptional a part as Yu and Yoko, as much as she's introduced in a way to imply she is of equal importance. The adults in their life are pretty interesting, too: Atsuro Watabe makes Yu's father Tetsu an intriguing character, possessed of many of the same flaws as his son, but reacting to the same stresses with coldness rather than the need to please. And Makiko Watanabe makes Kaori, the woman who becomes obsessed with her priest, both monstrous and strangely sympathetic; her intentions are good but she seems utterly unable to resist her tendencies toward chaos.

All these elements interact in fascinating ways, and it's easy to see why there's no intermission - even without a clock in the theater, I get the impression that the natural breakpoints would split the movie unevenly, one hour to three. The movie just moves too smoothly for most of its length for stopping to make sense. That's not to say the story's perfect; somewhere around the three hour mark things started getting not just weird, but weird in a way that didn't necessarily seem to grow from what came before. Once the Zero Church becomes a major factor in the story, it starts to seem like Sono is pushing the characters toward an end, rather than following where they lead.

Those scenes are still fine examples of surrealism and drama; they are certainly nothing for the film to be ashamed of. And by the time you get to them, "Love Exposure" has given you more movie excellence than most double features. Besides, a movie this daring certainly should leave the audience questioning a point or two.

link directly to this review at http://www.efilmcritic.com/review.php?movie=18986&reviewer=371
originally posted: 07/31/09 13:57:16
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OFFICIAL SELECTION: New York Asian Film Festival 2009 For more in the New York Asian Film Festival 2009 series, click here.
OFFICIAL SELECTION: 2009 Fantasia Festival For more in the 2009 Fantasia International Film Festival series, click here.
OFFICIAL SELECTION: Fantastic Fest 2009 For more in the Fantastic Fest 2009 series, click here.
OFFICIAL SELECTION: 2010 Boston Underground Film Festival For more in the 2010 Boston Underground Film Festival series, click here.

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Directed by
  Sion Sono

Written by
  Sion Sono

Cast
  Takahiro Nishijima
  Hikari Mitsushima
  Sakura Ando
  Makiko Watanabe
  Atsuro Watabe



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