Founder and Editor; Toronto, Canada (@AnarchistTodd)
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[Our thanks to Greg Christie for the following.]

This may possibly be one of the most difficult films a person could possibly sit down and write about or review. If you’re a regular here at ScreenAnarchy, chances are you’re already familiar with Sono’s previous work and all of the hype surrounding his current opus. So I’m going to avoid redundancies and refrain from providing any basic synopsis. I’m also going to keep this review as spoiler free as possible. This is simply one person’s emotional reaction to what they’ve witnessed. I’ll leave the major plot spoilers for the talkback below.

Like all of you, I’ve been reading and hearing heaps of praise and a generous amount lot of hyperbole for Love Exposure as it’s been making its rounds on the festival market. I’m a long time fan of Sono, having seen the North American premiere of Suicide Club at the Philadelphia International Film Festival back in the spring of 2002. To this day, I still find Noriko’s Dinner Table to be Sono’s strongest work and one of the most powerful Japanese films made in the last decade. But I was also absolutely horrified by Strange Circus and found that to be one of the single most disgusting films I’ve ever seen. So I went into Love Exposure extremely excited, but not without some trepidation.

It’s impossible to discuss Love Exposure without bringing up its running time. I’m sure the first thing that anyone who hasn’t seen the film is wondering is, “is four hours too long?” That’s a complicated question actually, but the short answer is. Yes…Hell yes. And I’d be cautious to believe anyone who says otherwise.

Love Exposure is a lot of things, but the one thing that it is not, is boring. The film’s plot and characters careen from one twist to another, the tone and structure constantly changing gears, often violently (literally). It’s a roller coaster ride form beginning to end. Sounds like a good thing right? I suggest you think about that a little more. A four hour roller coaster ride? Might that not get a bit tiring or exhaustive?

By no means is the film insufferable, I never felt restless during the running time. But a little after hour three my mind began to wander. The film lacks any real focus, and as a result, I lost mine a third way through. By the end, I really didn’t care if Yu, the film’s protagonist, would end up with Yoko, his Maid Marian.

Ultimately, Love Exposure is a romance at heart. Yu’s obsession with Yoko is the driving force behind much of the film. Both characters are interesting and well performed, but they have zero chemistry as a couple. Apart from Yu’s silly quest to find his Mary, there’s absolutely no reason for him to be in love with Yoko, and until the final few moments, they shared absolutely no time together that would suggest they’d have any reason to be in love with each other. It’s all very shallow, surprisingly so for a film that has four hours to spend developing their relationship.

But there is a lot to like with the film, probably enough that most are going to convince themselves that the film is a success as a whole. There are moments of absolute brilliance, and a few laugh out loud funny moments. The first hour is a powerhouse tour de force of slapstick, nihilistic Japanese comedy.

Before the film, NYAFF programmer, Mark Walkow asked the audience to check their watches when the film’s title card appeared. When the kanji for Love Exposure finally hit the screen, a full sixty minutes had already passed; the audience had gone into an uproar. Unfortunately, the ecstatic energy of the crowed waned as the film continued. If Sono goes back and cuts an hour and some change out, I think he’d have something very fun and special on his hands. And I believe that there’s at least an hour of fat the film could stand to lose.

During the QA, there was a woman who asked Sono why he didn’t cut more. She told him she found much of the film repetitive. You could hear the audience collectively gasp in horror at her comment. Yet, everyone I spoke to during the reception admitted they found it at least 40 minutes too long and agreed that much of the film was very silly.

In many ways, Love Exposure is the quintenssential contemporary independent Japanese film. It contains all of the elements of extreme Asian cinema that ScreenAnarchy readers adore. It’s a variable grab bag with winks and nods to classic Japanese Exploitation cinema, pink films, saccharine romance, and slapstick comedy. Many of the films flaws are actually endearing for the first two hours or so. The film plays out like a cinematic punk song. Fast, frantic, intense, raw, and very very sloppy. Sono is throwing everything and the kitchen sink out the window, unfortunately, a lot of it doesn’t work. And as far as I could tell, it didn’t work for a lot of people who attended Friday’s screening.

In summary, the film is about Catholicism, cults, love, peek a panty photography etc but it has very little to say about pornography and sex, and what points it does make about the nature of religion and cults, it later contradicts. It feels like Sono is making it all up as he’s going along with no actually plan or overreaching character arches, and the farther he takes things, the more obvious it is that even he’s forgetting what came before.

When it comes to sex, the film is surprisingly chaste. While there’s a plethora of panty shots and camel toes abound, there is no nudity or on screen sex. The irony that Yu and Yoko’s relationship ends on a platonic note is sweet and clever. Still, for a film about the king of hentai, it’s all very restrained, frustratingly so. Well, that is, apart from an incredibly graphic and absolutely gratuitous castration.

And there in lies the film’s biggest problem. So much of the film is just juvenile. This isn’t necessarily a bad thing. But it prevented the film from being the ultimate masterpiece for me that others have been proclaiming it to be.

Love Exposure is a film that I would absolutely recommend to fans of Sion Sono and extreme Japanese cinema, but no one else. Noriko’s Dinner Table, on the other hand, was a film I felt confident showing to general audiences and lending out to casual friends uninitiated with Japanese cinema whereas Love Exposure is an otaku’s wet dream.

We’re given the back-story of one character with a longstanding history of physical abuse which ends with her strangling her father, rubbing her crouch on his hard on, and then cutting it off, releasing a geyser of blood that paints the entire bed room red. Yeah, did I forget to mention that Yoshihiro Nishimura of Tokyo Gore Police fame did the effects? This same character also kills a shitload of her peers at her high school. But she doesn’t go to jail or anything. There seems to be very little consequences to anyone’s actions. People maim, murder, and blow up buildings with no reprehensions. The film is so loopy and filled with so many holes in its plot, it’s almost impossible to follow.

The film poses a lot of questions and leaves almost all of them unanswered and often completely unexplored. Many could claim the same about Suicide Club or Noriko’s Dinner Table but I’d disagree. As extreme and surreal as both of those films were, The worlds that Sono created within those films had a basic, primary logic. The themes and ideas within those films are very concrete and comprehensible. For me, Love Exposure is just a bunch of crazy. It’s everything that most people thought Suicide Club was.

Sure, a lot of Love Exposure concerns itself with Catholicism and cults. But it’s all very shallow. It attacks Christianity based solely on surface values and feels a bit uninformed.

A large, corporate cult called Church Zero plays also very large role in Love Exposure, yet the audience is never really told or shown what it is that the cult stands for. We’re told that they’re bad and that they kidnap people’s families and brainwash them, but we’re never told why, to what gain. I was expecting a Jonestown type massacre or grand political conspiracy by the end. What does happen is a bit anti climatic and completely confusing.

There is a brilliant and dizzying foot chase through the cult’s sky rise premises revealing rooms of cult members being brainwashed, doped up, and caged, and it’s probably the most interesting scene in the film. But again, we never go back to that, nothing is further explained about the cult. I’m not asking for exposition or to be patronized, but if a director is going to ask for four hours of my time, I want some depth.

Norkio’s Dinner Table is a significantly more poignant film that deals with similar themes. It’s a far more powerful and emotionally engaging exploration of personal identity and one woman’s misanthropic quest to destroy as many people as possible.

As far as I could tell, the audience was decidedly mixed Friday night. In fact, a few people around me were absolutely furious at the picture. My initial reaction was, “I don’t know.” My three friends’ reactions were “I don’t know.”

Three days later and I still don’t know how I feel about the film. In many ways, it felt like it was all a dream. I can remember the experience as a whole, but the details are already fuzzy. There is a certain indescribable quality to the film that seems to wash over the audience and induces a slight type of hypnosis.

Seeing Love Exposure on the big screen with an audience is certainly an experience, and one that I’m glad that I had. But I can honestly say I’ll never see this in its entirety again.

Review by Greg Christie

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Joshua ChaplinskyJuly 7, 2009 2:04 AM

Huh. A very different reaction. Interesting.

rustyjamesJuly 7, 2009 2:49 AM

I was at the same screening last friday. Personally I felt that the film was a remarkable achievement, and possessed a sort of madcap brilliance in both its writing and directing that for me, is certainly a high point for Sono's career (I haven't seen Noriko's Dinner Table, but I loved Strange Circus. And this film also blows Exte out of the water), and shows clearly that he is some kind of demented genius.
While the film lags a bit in its final hour, the film sustains itself for far longer than I ever expected it to. The first hour in particular is wildly entertaining, and the bulk of the second act is arguably even more impressive, taking what we have seen from the characters and twisting into a strange, serpentine, completely unpredictable narrative.
I sort of think that some of the problems you have with the film are a matter of personal taste, rather than some transgression of concrete criteria that the film needs to meet in order to be ejnoyable. For myself and the people I saw the film with, the screwball logic of the world in this film is something that Sono sets up brilliantly from the beginning, and I found it quite easy to accept and enjoy. By its own logic, everything in the film makes sense, and each narrative turn leads to another in a really astoundingly creative way.
Anyways I also just think that the general vibe from the screening was extremely positive; people cheered in agreement when he asked if they thought it was the best film they had seen all year. Plus, when you have 90% of the audience sticking around for the q&a after sitting there for 4 hours, that says something.
Also, for me, since the screening the more I think about the film, the more impressive it becomes. My memory is not of a grueling 4 hour screening, but of an exciting, completely fresh and unique experience, one that I certainly would welcome again.

Ben UmsteadJuly 7, 2009 3:40 AM

Ahh and here is a healthy contradictory reaction to mine or any other lover's of the film.
It is good to have, to weigh and balance opinion; a tempered recommendation.

The thing that makes the most sense to me here is that yes, fans of Japanese cinema and Sono in particular will go for it, other than that it is a hard sell, but I don't think it is impossible. It just really depends on the person you're talking to. Really with most movies, it is a person to person rec. basis IMO.

While I would agree it could possibly be tighter by maybe 30 minutes (frankly an hour feels too much) I have no idea where to start, and I'd dearly miss pretty much anything.
To me the movie behaves like Ravel's "Bolereo" used within. It takes its time to build a set of motions, gradually, and every moment counts for the weight of the next.

CuttermaranJuly 7, 2009 4:58 AM

Agree Ben, this movie is a freakin' Bolero in cinema history.

sitenoiseJuly 7, 2009 8:27 AM

OK, parade successfully rained upon. I happen to think that most of what's written here is probably true and not necessarily at odds with what Ben has written ... it's more of a degree of how much the cautionary notes here might bother someone. I'm glad to here this shade of the story ... and maybe it resonates with me a bit because I'm such a Noriko's Dinner Table fan. I applaud this writer giving us his own Sono context.

Nothing can stop me from seeing this film. I'm happy to soak in all the reactions of others until such time as I have my own.

The build up and anticipation for this film remind me of waiting for Charlie Kaufman's "Synecdoche, New York" ... I like to think of that film as his "Exile on Main Street" and assume "Love Exposure" will be Sono's.

krln99July 13, 2009 2:58 AM

I'm still gonna see this, probably buy it. I'm glad there's at least one mild to negative review, actually, cuz usually when something is "universally praised" I'm almost always disappointed.