Kimyô na sâkasu
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DIRECTED BY: Sion Sono
FEATURING: Masumi Miyazaki, Issei Ishida, Rie Kuwana, Hiroshi Oguchi
PLOT: At a surreal cabaret show, 12-year-old Mitsuko tells her story of parental abuse culminating in the accidental killing of her mother and her own attempted suicide; suspecting her story is made up, publishers hire editor Yuji is enlisted to ferret out the truth.
WHY IT MIGHT MAKE THE LIST: Sion Sono has a lifetime pass to immediate consideration for our list, and this blend of truly disturbing scenarios, intriguing imagery, and repeated misdirection is exactly the kind of thing to catch our eye. He begins with subject matter so taboo and depraved that he seems unlikely to emerge with any kind of a reputation, but he then tucks it inside such a labyrinthine puzzle that qualms about the material are subsumed by wonder at how he’s going to pull it all off.
COMMENTS: The three-act structure of Strange Circus is almost too simple: Act I is the horrifying tale of an abused girl, Act II is the mystery over whether the girl’s story was made up by a popular novelist or recounts her own terrible upbringing, and Act III is the solution to that mystery. Couldn’t be more basic.
The movie as executed is anything but simple. Sion Sono knows the difference between shock and surprise, and he deploys both in their turn, choosing just the appropriate jaw-dropping image to fit the moment. It’s not merely that he can keep you off balance. It’s that he knows just the right way to do it.
Consider the first third of the film, which is a straight-out horror show. The scenario is utterly appalling: Mitsuko’s father forces her to watch his rough copulations with her mother and then eventually forces her into direct participation. In sync with this moment, Mitsuko’s world becomes visibly grotesque, with blood-red walls and a repeated transference with her mother. The girl’s suppressed turmoil is given form in the staging that makes her school look like an abattoir and her home resemble a crumbling mansion.
The middle section offers up something quite different. We meet Taeko, a mysterious novelist whose idiosyncrasies and domineering behavior are shocking in their own way, but no longer metaphorical. The strange carvings on her wall? The disguises that she uses to masquerade in public? Her habit of writing while wearing a negligee, sitting atop a cello case, and stuffing spaghetti in her mouth? There’s no filter for this strange behavior. What you see is what you get. In fact, only a couple stray trips into the fantasy world are found here, and pay attention to them when they come, because they’re a clue as to what awaits us…
…in the final act, when the true source of the awful tale of Mitsuko is revealed. This is pure Grand Guignol, and while the revelations are completely over-the-top and deliberately outrageous, a look back suggests that Sono has played fair with us all along. Alone, it might threaten to tip over into absurdity, echoing the wild finales of films like Performance or Beyond the Valley of the Dolls. But as crazy as it gets, it’s unquestionably earned.
Masumi Miyazaki is doing tour de force work here, essentially playing multiple roles and earning the audience’s affections even when her behavior borders on reprehensible. Strange Circus, it turns out, doesn’t just have an unreliable narrator, but is about the making of an unreliable narrator, and her performance taps into mystery, empathy, and beauty to sell you on characters you might have abandoned as irredeemable. A special mention also goes out to Rie Kuwana, who is heartbreaking as young Mitsuko, still radiating innocence even in the face of the indignities heaped upon her. (I made sure to watch the behind-the-scenes documentary for assurance that the actor wasn’t enduring the miseries of her character.)
Strange Circus is not easy to watch, especially in its opening scenes of household terror. But it is utterly audacious, and doesn’t waste its ambitions by coming up short with its revelations. Strange Circus is strange indeed.
WHAT THE CRITICS SAY:
“No matter how weird things get it’s always coherent and we always know that we’re being shown something that is “really” happening, albeit shaded behind denial and mental illness and wishful thinking. Sono’s playing by his own rules perhaps, but he’s still playing fair. When the ending comes, it doesn’t elicit ‘WTF?’ but ‘Oh! I get it!’”–Jeremy Knox, Film Threat
(This movie was nominated for review by ginanoelma. Suggest a weird movie of your own here.)