Is there anything worse--in terms of cinema-going, not actual world issues, natch--than the feeling of dread and mild betrayal of watching a film you've greatly enjoyed start turning to shit? Wanting so hard for things to swing back up while knowing that after a certain point it's almost irredeemable? It's like watching your money flying out into the ocean, while you desperately grasp for the bills knowing it's hopeless and the goodwill you felt from earning that paycheque will be permanently soured.
Sion Sono is a director who has proven on several occasions that he's got brilliance to spare, with a distinct panache for the twisted and a refreshing gleefulness for his often brutal subject matter. All of his films are heavily flawed, ironically except for his least ambitious and most uninteresting outing: Exte. Given that that one, a clever and enjoyable but ultimately shallow mainstream horror-parody, was more tightly edited and less daring, it's sad that it may be one of his best films. Both Strange Circus and Noriko's Dinner Table are fascinating and provocatively uncomfortable, but fly off the rails at some point and to varying degrees. Suicide Club notoriously features an extended and grating scene in a bowling alley that nearly ruins the whole movie. I haven't seen Love Exposure yet, but at roughly four hours long I can't imagine there isn't some abuse of (lack of) restraint to be found within.
With Cold Fish, his weaknesses prove to be as glaring as ever during the film's third act. Up until then, though, it was just the opposite: Sono was flaunting his perfected stylistic approach with an exhiliratingly assured hand. Quick cuts, pounding music and colorful visuals immediately set the stage for a rollicking black comedy that could have been one of his best efforts yet. If only it didn't wind up wallowing in over-excessive gore and off-putting levels of misogyny.
For those that would defend the film by citing that he was following a "true story," well, there are many problems with that. First of all, he has taken many liberties and changed the entire setting, and added a whole cast of fictional characters. Second, there is such a thing as having the sense of what should and shouldn't be glorified onscreen even if in some bizarre universe every one of these incidents had really happened. Like, say, a once mild-mannered man beating the ever living crap out of his daughter and wife. The worst part being that every female character in Cold Fish is either stupid, needy, over-sexualized, irrelevant, or all of the above.
I wouldn't go as far as to say that this is a huge step back for Sono, or that I've lost any faith in him. The first hour and a half of the movie is as good of a time at the theater as I've had in ages, and I think with a better editing partner and some firm wrist-slaps, he could be one of contemporary Japan's greatest filmmakers. Unfortunately, I can only witness so many bare-breasted bimbos getting punched in the face and/or bludgeoned before I dismiss a movie as suspiciously cruel and pointless. This is not to say that men don't get their fair share of played-for-laughs violence doled out to them in the flick, but they aren't say things like "let's make love now!" in the midst of it, either.