Love Exposure (Ai no mukidashi) (2008)

The beginning of Hell.
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Love Exposure - Shion Sono

As a general rule, when a director can move seamlessly from knob gags to profound emotion, then he or she is doing something right. You can expect all of this and much, much more from Shion Sono in 2008's Love Exposure; despite being quite an undertaking with around a four-hour running time, this is not a film which ever felt boring, nor did it overstay its welcome. Again, there are few directors who could get away with this, but Shion Sono is one of them, and he uses this time to weave a complex, warped, often hilarious and often tragic narrative.

Yu (Takihiro Nishijima) comes from a devoutly Catholic family; when his mother falls ill and dies (or, as she euphemistically puts it, 'goes on a trip') Yu is left alone with his dad, who becomes, if it's possible, even more religious in his grief, eventually becoming a priest. Yu grows into a teenager, and a he's good lad who doesn't get into trouble. Their peace is shattered, however, as always in Shion Sono's movies, by the sudden intrusion of a stranger - a woman called Kaori, a tart with a heart who falls in love with Yu's father Tetsu and won't take no for an answer. That is, until she gets bored and moves on for a while.

Perhaps because he violated his vow of celibacy, Yu's father darkens. He begins to deflect this black mood onto Yu, insisting that he come into church for confession on a daily basis. The thing is, Yu's still a good lad. He hasn't really done anything worth confessing. In his own words, this was "the beginning of Hell" for him, as his increasingly-demanding father expected to hear some serious sins. Anxious not to displease him, he starts making them up. Then he starts committing petty sins on purpose and, getting in with a gang of petty shoplifters and bad lads, finds he's actually getting to enjoy it

His notoriety spreads... all the way to (and get this) a band of renegade philosopher pornographers, who are looking to mentor someone in the fine art of up-skirt photography. Yu has hit the jackpot. Of course! What could piss off a priest more than porn? He and his boys get training, and are soon a crack squad of perverts. And damn right it upsets his father - for a moment, Yu's father is an outraged dad again, not just a priest. Funny thing is, though; Yu doesn't find it turns him on at all. Ever since his mother died, he's been waiting to find his own perfect woman - his "Maria", or Virgin Mary, a woman he promised his mother he'd wait for. So far, no sign of her, or of any associated sexual arousal. But a life-changing event is just around the corner, and it involves a misandrist ass-kicking teenage girl, a street fight, Yu getting into drag, a momentous first erection, and a sinister cult. For starters.

Unbelievably the original cut of this film was six hours, but under pressure from the producers it was cut by two. I can only guess at what else Shion Sono wanted to say with this one, or what the experience of six hours of Love Exposure would have been, but in any case the film we get is well worth the sizeable commitment it requires. This movie kept me guessing; it adds new layers to the plot throughout, playing with its time-frame and offering flashback sequences to help us better understand the often-mysterious characters, with special mention to Koike (Sakura Ando) who plays one of the finest and most conniving female psychopaths I've ever seen. Altogether, the film makes the most of its time to offer very well-realised character arcs. Shion Sono never makes his characters straightforward, and he seems to like to show that personal enlightenment comes at a heavy cost, so expect plenty of that here. And yet, this is a Shion Sono movie, so expect that personal enlightenment to be framed with sex, identity crises and mental illness. In this case, particularly sex, as the underground porn industry is always to be found lurking on the periphery of the plot even if it's not directly involved.

All of this gives way to some hilarious sequences: I literally laughed out loud at the ninja-style photography sprees, and at things like the gang playing poker with panty-shot pictures. In fact, you could be forgiven for thinking that Love Exposure isn't as dark as some of Shion Sono's other films - but actually, it is, even if it makes you wait for it. It uses its craziness to touch on some incredibly weighty topics, asking the usual questions about the Japanese family, but also looking at how much a person can take before they snap - and what happens to them when they snap. Whilst religion is explored and sometimes pulled apart, it's really more looked at in terms of how it affects family life, or gives the young people at the core of the plot impetus to act.

Ultimately, Shion Sono is giving us an outlandish spin on the much-overused "personal journey" motif in Love Exposure, having fun with it, taking us to some dark places, but finding the space to give us a glimmer of hope at the conclusion. I also love that he references so much other cinema here, especially the Female Convict Scorpion films - it shows a sense of awareness of what came before but doesn't detract from the fun, zany, impressive way in which it's used in Shion Sono's work. As a filmmaker, he is utterly unique, and I highly recommend Love Exposure. Dedicate an afternoon to it, get ready to laugh, wonder "what the fuck?" and ultimately, really care about his characters. Brilliant.
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