Judge Kerry Birmingham looks forward to the extra Google hits this review will receive thanks to his use of the words "BDSM," "incest," "genital shaving," and "clockwork dildo."
What did he want to see before he died?
It's a good idea to get this out of the way up front: is Flower & Snake II pornography? The answer, hesitantly, is no. While elements of it—the rampant BDSM, faux rape, masturbation, incest, degradation, and even some light "water sports"—are tacitly pornographic, the proceedings are set in a dramatic framework that is considerably weightier (and more convoluted) than the pizza delivery boy looking for a "tip." In this regard, Flower & Snake II can safely be called a relationship drama; there's much hand-wringing and soliloquizing on the nature of art, love, desire, and control. It has more in common with 9 ½ Weeks than Debbie Does Dallas.
Facts of the Case
Aging and impotent art critic Takayoshi (Jo Shishido) finds himself in a sexless but loving marriage with Shizuko (Aya Sugimoto, Flower & Snake), a woman several decades his junior. When an artist's series of bondage photographs makes Takayoshi question whether or not Shizuko is truly fulfilled, he conspires to send her to Paris to evaluate a promising but unproductive Japanese artist living there. The artist, Ryoosuke (Kenichi Endo, Flower & Snake), is erratic and uninspired—until Shizuko enters his life. He agrees to tackle his paintings in earnest, on the condition that Shizuko serve as his model and muse. Thus begins a torrid affair that awakens Shizuko's dormant sexuality and brings her marriage to a turning point.
It's been said that the only difference between porn and art is the lighting; like the work of art-smut auteur Zalman King, Flower & Snake II makes enough of a case for itself as a story of sexual liberation and forming genuine connections rather than the (solely) exploitive venture that everything else about the movie indicates.
This plot is laden with unsaid meaning and gravitas, but that doesn't prevent it from being a mostly nonsensical affair. Opening with a startling (but otherwise disconnected) rape by a delivery man, the film quickly moves into the angst of elderly Takayoshi and his concern for his wife's happiness. Takayoshi's somber dialogue with another codger of the Japanese art world over Photoshopped pictures of Shizuko in bondage poses sums up the dichotomy of the whole film: the dour juxtaposed with the shockingly graphic. It's not long after that that Shizuko has a crucifixion rape fantasy (you did read that right) and Takayoshi sets his plot in motion to finally see his wife both liberated and satisfied.
Things get more twisted from there as an initially tentative Shizuko arrives in Paris to find unstable artist Ryoosuke having a lover's spat with his model/sister. Ryoosuke forces himself on Shizuko almost immediately. Their warped romance plays out from there, swerving from reluctant infatuation to a full-blown affair. Shizuko serves as the blocked painter's inspiration in his attempt to attain, if not legitimacy as an artist, at least profitability as a peddler of erotica. It's when Ryoosuke actually manages to complete a painting that the plot becomes even more improbable, culminating in a secret sex auction full of masked millionaires (who seem to be leftover extras from Eyes Wide Shut). The film culminates in a lengthy, increasingly uncomfortable sequence in which Shizuko is humiliated in front of a crowd of leering onlookers, ending with a series of dramatic revelations. None of these turns are particularly surprising—what could the conspicuously posed, body-length mirror Ryoosuke uses in his BDSM games be hiding, I wonder?—but they bring the film back around to its central conflicts as all the emotions and simmering conflicts are laid bare. Lest you get bored by the tears, melodrama, and artful, anguished posing, there's even a whipping scene thrown in for good measure. The sex throughout is graphic, but eschews expected porn-isms like penetration and (let's put this one in quotes, shall we?) "money shots" in favor of stark nudity and brutal, unapologetic domination.
Whatever the case for Flower & Snake II's merits as a legitimate piece of drama, there is an undeniable fearlessness to the creative personnel involved. Sugimoto allows herself to be bound, contorted, and otherwise mauled (to use the film's phrasing, "bound like a shrimp") in ways that, in the behind-the-scenes footage, she admits only to finding "uncomfortable." Likewise Endo, who appeared in the first film as a different character, is called upon to portray an unhinged, dysfunctional character (yes, I know I already said he was an artist). He portrays what is arguably a strong misogynistic streak yet still maintains a basic core of sympathy—which isn't easy when you're boffing your own sister and forcibly restraining your models. It's a credit to both actors (and the game supporting cast, whose gravity increases with each actor's age) that they take the material as seriously as they do in the face of things like on-stage genital shaving and forced urination. Any acknowledgement of how utterly ridiculous all of this is remains off-camera.
Director Takashi Ishii, also returning from the first film, approaches the material with an artist's eye. Whatever his individual opinions of the sex on display in Flower & Snake II, it's unmistakably well shot. The sex scenes and fantasies are gorgeously lit and shot as beautiful tableaus. Individual shots and scenes are as ravishingly elaborate (and art-directed to within an inch of their lives) as anything in Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon or Zhang Yimou's lavish period epics. The concept of Flower & Snake II is inherently silly. Yet Ishii's command of the camera goes a long way towards our considering the film as more than the sum of its (body) parts. If it's to be classified as crass, exploitive pornography, it could at least be classified as crass, exploitive pornography that's elegantly made. In a genre as questionable as this, that's about as close to integrity as one could hope for.
Of the extras, the deleted scenes, mingled with behind-the-scenes footage, are negligible. Footage from the film's premiere, entailing introductions from the cast and crew immediately before the first screening, show that the Japanese are a polite and professional people even while anxiously debuting a film which features a clockwork dildo. The "digest version" promotional shorts, played as one lump featurette, recap the film in digestible chunks and repeat a lot of the same information in doing so. Finally, a small gallery of images displays a few of the more artistic and lurid of Sugimoto's bondage poses. Picture quality is often grainy and dark, though given the deliberateness of the film's artistic design and direction, this is presumably intentional and not a symptom of a bad transfer.
The Rebuttal Witnesses
It's difficult to recommend this film outright, but it would also be critically callous to dismiss it in an equally unqualified manner. Those "into that sort of thing" will probably appreciate the punishing (literal and figurative) sex scenes and be bored by the almost as drawn-out dramatic dialogues; anyone who would potentially be enrapt by what is some involved and intricate melodrama are likely to be turned off by the pan-fetishistic sexual excesses indulged in by the characters (and more academic minds might have something to say about the film's treatment of women). An appreciation of one or the other subject matter will probably make the difference, and both sides would be right. Someone's bound to be bored or repulsed somewhere in here.
Too pornographic to be art, too arty to be pornography…if nothing else, Flower & Snake II shows that as dubious as the American brand of softly-lit softcore erotic dramas can be, the Japanese know a way to make it even more screwed up.
Guilty. But that's okay: it wants to be punished.
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Scales of Justice
Studio: Media Blasters
• Deleted Scenes/Making-of
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