Guilty of Romance (Koi no tsumi) (2011)

I desperately want to do something. Anything will do. I want to suppress this urge.
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Guilty of Romance - I desperately want to do something. Anything will do. I want to suppress this urge.

Say what you like about Japanese director Shion Sono, but let's all agree on one thing: he doesn't care for drab opening scenes. This much is true of the staggering Guilty of Romance (2011), the first film I have seen of this year and undoubtedly one which will wind up on my top films list at the end of 2012. In terms of theme, it has much in common with its predecessor Cold Fish (2010), but it lacks that film's (few but significant) flaws, including not overstaying its welcome. Guilty of Romance is much more finely-wrought and has just as much, if not more warped pathos within.

The film opens as a few Japanese films have done lately - explaining some of the details of Tokyo's sex industry, especially what goes on in Maruyama-cho, the Shibuya district, home to many the capital's numerous "love hotels" and prostitutes. No sooner is this established, then we're led through this gaudy district by the police and left face to face with a very unusual corpse: part mannequin and part flesh, with no head - surrounded by splashes of colourful paint and the inexplicable word "castle" daubed on the wall behind. Thus, we're privy to a mystery which lurks beneath the surface of everything which is to follow. Guilty of Romance has five distinct chapters, and two women whose lives are about to intersect; first, we meet Izumi (Megumi Kagurazaka).

Izumi is a cat on a hot tin roof, a jumble of nerves, self-reproach and frustration. Ostensibly happily married to a famous author and doing her utmost to play the dutiful wife, she is in fact miserably bored. More than that, she's a half-person, a domestic, not really seen as a sexual being by her husband - he'd rather write about sex than have it with her. She's on the cusp of her thirtieth birthday, and desperate to do - what? Anything, something. So she looks for work because she thinks that will help, and she gets a tedious job, but nothing improves.

One day though, in fine Shion style, a chance encounter throws Izumi off her orbit for good and precipitates a turn of events which seem at first empowering, but soon seem inescapable. A talent scout approaches Izumi and asks if she would be interested in doing some modelling work - along the lines of "feminine beauty", as she tactfully puts it. Despite misgivings, Izumi accepts: however uncomfortable she starts out feeling, it has to be an improvement on living to line up her husband's slippers or having conversations about soap.

At first, modelling leads her to a newfound appreciation of herself and her own charms, but then leads to illicit sex and finally the threat of real harm - when she comes to the attention of a Shibuya regular girl by the name of Mitsuko (Makoto Togashi). Izumi wants Mitsuko to guide her, but Mitsuko warns her off: you may have a manageable dark side, she tells Izumi, but in my case, it's all I am - and, true to her word, she has a devastating impact upon her "apprentice".

Shion Sono has no mercy whatsoever on his characters, but he also has the very real skill necessary to make their subsequent fates feel affecting and this is what makes him one of the best directors working today. You could hammer a lesser-drawn character than Izumi (or Shamoto, in Cold Fish) into the ground like a tent-peg and it wouldn't matter, but the way in which Shion first establishes realistic, recognisable domestic boredom and then extracts realistic, recognisable characters and sends them out into a dangerous world makes the final effect so much more compelling. Of course, where they end up strains the bounds of believability, but never so much so that you feel the film has lost its way. He doesn't just straightforwardly harangue his characters, either. There's a lot of ambiguity in his films, and especially so here, where to start with Izumi's liberation seems guardedly positive: she starts to properly live, even if it's through bad behaviour. It can't last, of course, but she only really blossoms into a real person when she rebels. Not that Shion could or would ever just leave people alone at that stage, mind.

Megumi Kagurazaka is brilliant as Izumi - a beautiful young woman, who genuinely seems not to see that, and one who communicates a turbulent inner life with the barest of glances or looks from beneath the veneer of her respectability. Her doppelganger, Mitsuko, is menacing nine times out of ten but dementedly vulnerable the rest - a magnetic, chaotic force, disrupting everything around her. Once she is in Izumi's life then it's not a question of if everything is changed forever, but a question of how and how much. Like any good tragedy, it's all inescapable anyway - and Shion seems to definitely point the film in the direction of tragedy, using literary references to signpost this along the way and of course, framing the film with a grisly crime. It seems empowerment isn't all it's said to be...

As you might expect by where the film is (frequently) set and the dominating theme at its core, there is a lot of sex in Guilty of Romance, and nearly all of it is about as far from erotic as you can get - despite the attractiveness of the two lead actresses. It's just another facet of how unrelentlessly grim the film is. Sex is awkward, or hurried, or cheap, or non-existent; it's also liberating, a way out of living a lie. It's also often literally - spliced with death, as sex scenes are cut to move into shots of that disfigured body; there's that ambiguity again. How are you meant to feel by the end of this film? Well, my overarching feeling was incredulity, at how Shion had managed to make something so intrinsically sinister so sympathetic.

Add a dash of existential angst about whether or not actions really do speak louder than words (replete with a mythical "somewhere" which represents a lost ideal; here; the "Castle") and here we have one of Shion Sono's best films, in an already strong line-up. It's sweet, it's grisly, it's obscene, and - by the way - I did not see where this beautifully-made film was going. Guilty of Romance is one of the finest films I have seen in a long time and fans of left-field Asian cinema should be ordering a copy of this right away.
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Categories: Asian Horror Movies

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