Thursday, February 13, 2014

Strange Circus (2005): The Circus of your Mind

Strange Circus (2005)
dir: Sion Sono

Readers of Japanese Manga should be used to the type of subject matter contained within this film. Watchers of Takeshi Miike might even be used to it. But, Strange Circus will be no less shocking to those who think they should be accustomed to the content.

What is in Strange Circus? Incest, rape, murder, violence, dismemberment, paralysis, and psychosis. You know? Disney fun for the whole family. And, it's handled with all the subtlety and sensitivity that any Japanese over-the-top movie brings to the screen.

Strange Circus opens with a carnival/circus where a drag queen invites a 14 year old girl to be executed on the stage guillotine. The girl accepts his offer, and comments, in voice over, that she thinks this is where she was born. But, the carnival is only a metaphorical framing device of the story within the film. The story is about a daughter who accidentally sees her parents having sex, gets caught by her father, then is molested, and raped by her father. Her father grooms her in grotesque ways, like locking her in a cello case with eyes cut out to watch her father have sex with her mother.

The story is disconnected and dreamy, with the mother and daughter frequently interchanging positions. The mother is jealous of the daughter's new sexual position in the family. The daughter accidentally kills the mother during one of the mother's jealous rages over an earring.

But, all of this is the latest manuscript of an author, played by the same actress who plays the mother in the stories. In this reality, the author is attended by a new editor from her publishing house who waits on her hand and foot while also reading through her manuscript.

You'd be more than a little forgiven if you thought this has the same types of themes as Miike's Audition, which is also about a father figure who auditions young girls to be his lover, only to be tortured for his abuse of the system and falling into the lamentable pattern of seeing women as objects for his sex or love. And, really, that movie was one of Miike's first films that seems to be a nuclear weapon aimed by the new generation of Japan at the old cultures of Japan. It seemed to rip open the old school ideas of sex and dominance, while forcing its own values on the screen.

Sono's Strange Circus, participates in the same knee-jerk cinema that also seems to be about how the old customs of Japan fucked up the new generation. Especially with it's conclusion, which doesn't exactly come out of left field but reaches a fever pitch normally seen in anime and manga. Sono seems to be saying "look at how you raped and fucked up Japan, assholes." Though, at times, one also checks in with the Natural Born Killers-esque question of "Can you condemn without also indulging?" Sono lingers over the various sexual abuses quite frequently and, while not completely and penetratively graphic, still graphic enough to be disturbing. It's still almost on a Showgirls rape scene level graphic. Which led to the question, is he indulging as he's condemning, or is he only indulging for entertainment, or only condemning? And, does it even matter?

The long form continuation of rape in this movie is really squeamish, and also leads to one wondering if this is almost a normalization of rape. Even if it is disturbing, the sheer amount of it almost has a numbing effect, even if Sono ultimately condemns it.

As a piece of shock cinema, however, Strange Circus certainly is shocking. It is also a frequently beautiful film. Sono makes the film look as lush and gorgeous as he can. The lushness takes away from the impact that a more raw, less stylized film would take, for better or worse. If you like shock cinema, this is one of the entries that you may need to watch. But, it will push your buttons, and maybe for no real reason.

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