Strange Circus [Movie review by Jori]

Strange Circusaka Kimyô na sâkasu
108 min., 2005
Directed by Shion Shono
Language: Japanese with English subtitles
My rating: ***

Bizarre, horrifying, beautiful, and strangely brilliant.

* * *

12 year old Mitsuko gets to be the star of the most dysfunctional family on the planet.  Her father (Hiroshi Ohguchi), who happens to be the principal of her school, is all about incest.  After being forced to watch her parents have sex while in a cello case, she has to step up to the plate and take her turn.  As if that isn’t awful enough, her mother (Masumi  Miyazaki) gets incredibly jealous of her and tries to kill her constantly.  Wow.  Author Taeko sure has an incredible imagination!  When she has to work with new editor Yuji (Issei Ishida), it just gets weirder as we try to figure out what is real, what is fiction and most importantly what the hell did I just watch?!

To call this a bizarre movie is an understatement.  Writer/director Shion Sono is known for delivering incredibly long, confusing films.  This has his distinct stamp once again.  Both horrifying and gorgeous, the way the awfulness of the story is presented with such incredible imagery keeps you see-sawing the entire time.  There is so much imagery involved to help tell the story, it does feel a bit overwhelming at times.  But he really uses it all to his advantage.  The narrative of little Mitsuko thinking that she has turned into her mother allows Sono to show us snippets of graphic rape scenes simultaneously underscoring the horror of it all but without having to resort to what would amount to child pornography.  You get the point, and ultimately it is more powerful to see how this poor child disassociates herself to live through the ultimate violation.

True to Sono’s style, this is an incredibly complex film disguised as a shocker.  There are so many things he says, with every little scene and each piece of dialogue that it is almost impossible to truly grasp everything on the first viewing.  Some may celebrate this, and some may throw up their hands and avoid it.  No matter which side of the fence you lie, you have to give the man credit for cramming so much deep meaning into a film.

Miyazaki does a phenomenal job in different roles – as Sayuri (the mom), Mitsuko, and Taeko.  She embodies each role and gets lost inside each character.  She looks the same, but even little mannerisms and the way she carries herself help define exactly who she is at the moment.  Ishida starts out so bizarre that you almost want to laugh, until you realize who he is – and at that point you understand that he has played Yuji perfectly.  Ohguchi as incestuous Gozo is absolutely revolting!

The problem with this film is that my head is still spinning and I’m having a hard time figuring out what exactly needs to be said about it.  There is so much symbolism crammed into it that it borders on overload.  But every time I decide on something I don’t particularly like, I come up with a reason why it makes sense in the context of the film.

This is a meticulously planned work of art.  Unfortunately, there is a certain amount of disconnect with the actual events taking place because of that.  A lot of time is spent either being intrigued, admiring the visuals, and trying to make sense of what is happening that there is an emotional detachment that happens with the characters.  The focus is far more on the theme of the film as opposed to the humanity of the characters that they sometimes get buried under all the commentary.

It isn’t necessarily a bad thing, considering that the subject matter is so reprehensible that I think he might be doing the viewer a favor by forcing that disconnect.  It is a horrendous situation that you can’t easily forget.  This is definitely not for the casual viewer, but it is such a work of art that I can’t help but cautiously urge those who feel they can somehow sit through the brutality of incest and insanity to watch it.

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About Jori

Being a stubborn girl, Jori insisted on watching scary movies as a little girl and proclaiming "I'm not scared!" from behind her oma's rocking chair. Much sleep was lost in the early years due to paralyzing fear, and her uncle Albert deserves a special mention for unwittingly showing her Monkey Shines. Jori spends her adult life trying to recapture that initial feeling of terror that she experienced as a child. Follow her on Twitter at @fvjori.
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