I am not one to shy away from any sort of film. I guess I have this twisted curiosity that drives me to see even the most disturbing movie made; so long as it is compelling. There are movies that you can say that you didn’t particularly enjoy, yet you can’t help but admit its brilliance and ambition. Films such as “The Girl Next Door”, “A Very Short Life” and “Blood and Bones” are prime examples. Sion Sono, the acclaimed writer-director of “Suicide Club” and “Noriko’s Dinner Table” once again defies genre descriptions and claims that it is grotesque but at the same time, it is visually erotic. Truer words have never been spoken.
A preteen schoolgirl named Mitsuko (played by Rie Kuwana) is pushed into a world of sex, voyeurism and abuse by her father Gozo (Hiroshi Ohguchi) who is also her school principal. In the beginning, Mitsuko was merely forced to watch her father have sex with her mother, Sayuri (Masumi Miyazaki) while hiding inside a huge cello case. But as time passes, Mitsuko and Sayuri switch places. Sayuri begins to envy Mitsuko as the other woman as Gozo forces the two to watch while the other has sex with him alternatively. This disgusting behavior, twisted relationship and forbidden sex has provoked a major collapse in psyche…
“I was sentenced to death at birth; or maybe my mother was to be executed and we switched places.”
Sion Sono’s “Strange Circus”(2005) is a film that defies proper descriptions. It is neither an art house film, nor is it a horror film; it is a bizarre amalgam of both that truly pushes the envelope. The movie is indeed horrific in ways that seem very real because truth be told, thing like this does happen. “Strange Circus” is the most graphic, highly disturbing film I’ve ever committed myself to watch….twice. (The first time was in April, 2007) My first review didn’t do the film justice, I was so shocked that such a theme would be explored in Japanese cinema so vividly. Themes of incestuous sex, sexual and child abuse, beheadings and decapitations, orgies and sick sexual depravation are strong in the film‘s screenplay. Still, Sion Sono’s “Strange Circus” deserves to be seen, it is brilliantly shot and despite its very disturbing themes, it is an excellent movie.
The film begins as we become privy to Mitsuko’s mental torture. It is the kind that upsets a person to the core. Aside from Mitsuko’s mental anguish, her mother Sayuri also experiences extreme torture of her psyche. One may ask as to how a mother can allow such an act to occur, but trust me, Sono will put everything together. The way the film’s first half is structured is similar to a narrative that feels episodic, it is as if Mitsuko herself is writing a journal. The film is quite cryptic in a way and would no doubt alienate some viewers. Its narrative is full of sequences that may make one question which is real or not, and as soon as you think you have it figured out, Sono warps you into another possibility. The sex scenes are very graphic and borders on being plain porn. Thankfully the scenes of Mitsuko’s molestation happen off camera, with some hinted at symbolisms to make its point.
Sono sidesteps the notion that there are innocents in the film. Sure, it is easy to sympathize with Mitsuko as we witness her plight but as soon as begin to develop the tiniest bit of empathy, it becomes replaced with confusion and utter disgust. Gozo may well be one of the most despicable characters I’ve seen in cinema. His admission that what he and Mitsuko did was wrong, was a way to express his knowledge that what he did was evil, and he was afraid that they may be found out. Gozo is a sex addict and would have sex with any woman. Throughout her life, Mitsuko is mentally tortured and used. First by her father and then attacked by her own mother. A strong argument may be raised that the movie is about the hallucinations of the older Mitsuko that she is writing a story now as a handicapped writer Taeko. But Sion Sono’s film is just as mind-bending as one by David Lynch. This is where Yuji comes in, to explain and to give us the horrifying conclusions.
Masumi Miyazaki plays multiple roles--as Sayuri, even as Mitsuko and then as Taeko. Her performance is just mesmerizing, her sex scenes are just disquieting but at the same time, undeniably erotic. Miyazaki bears her soul for her role and expresses every piece of needed emotion meant for the scene. “Strange Circus” is a success because of Masumi Miyazaki, she just does what is needed to be done. Her performance is truly impressive and to think that the actress took a long time off from acting before this performance. Sono presents considerable visuals and symbols to balance the film’s disturbing themes. The film is beautifully shot, with a nice execution in style.
The film’s screenplay is the type that makes you want to look away, much like witnessing a really bad car accident but for some reason, you just can’t look away. The film would be able to induce whiplash, brought upon by its last act. The end of the film is just too riveting and gripping that it may be worth the price of admission. It is a form of non-linear storytelling that may prove confusing to some, yet, so rewarding to those who are into brilliant filmmaking. It is just plain confusingly horrifying. Also, the film has a good share of blood and gore in the film’s last act…it involves a chainsaw.
“Strange Circus” is no doubt a film not for everybody. Heck, I would go as far as to suggest that it is not a film that would appeal to most people. While I cannot deny its bold ambition, I can’t really say I liked or enjoyed the film. If this had been released in theaters, it would earn the dreaded NC-17 rating. Sion Sono’s “Strange Circus” is rightfully named. It is grotesquely gripping and disturbing at the same time. It provokes a gritty disgust while enticing you with its narrative.
The film is of such disturbing nature that only the most timid recommendation may be given.
You may hide in a corner and suck on your thumbs now. [4+ Out of 5 Stars]