Judge Brendan Babish can't wait to cleanse himself with a nice, PG-rated family film after watching this.
Reality is the mystery…
From prolific Japanese director Sion Sono (Suicide Club) comes Strange Circus, a graphic and dreamlike film about child abuse and incest. You couldn't do much worse than watching this one on a first date.
Facts of the Case
Mitsuko (Rie Kuwana) is a young, curious girl who one evening accidentally spies her parents in mid-coitus. Having a voyeur arouses Mitsuko's father, Gozo (Hiroshi Ohguchi); he cuts a peephole in a cello case and begins hiding his daughter inside to spy on future lovemaking sessions. Eventually Gozo begins putting his wife, Sayuri (Masumi Miyazaki), in the cello case so that she can watch him rape Mitsuko. Strangely, Sayuri is not so much enraged at her husband as jealous of her daughter. After a brief fight over Gozo's affections, Mitsuko pushes her mother down the stairs, killing her. And then things start getting weird.
Taeko (also played by Masumi Miyazaki) is a celebrated, reclusive writer whose latest novel is the story of Mitsuko and her strange family. Her assistant, Yuji (Issei Ishida), is enthralled by Taeko, and learns that the new novel might be autobiographical. He sets out to learn how much of it is true, and discovers the shocking conclusion of Mitsuko and Gozu's story.
If the harrowing storyline of Strange Circus seems abhorring, don't fool yourself into thinking it's somehow done with class or restraint. There is little classy, and nothing restrained, about this film. Not that there's anything necessarily wrong with that; still, I have to assume that about 80-90 percent of the movie-going public would have nothing but contempt for the film's content. But for the 10-20 percent of us who enjoy creative and challenging cinema, Strange Circus has much to offer.
The film's director, Sion Sono, is probably best known for the graphic and troubling teen horror flick, Suicide Club. Like fellow countryman Takashi Miike (Audition), Sono is a prolific filmmaker (Strange Circus was one of four he made in 2005) whose movies are violet, disturbing, and highly stylized. So while Strange Circus is often grotesque, Sono's visual talent combined with fearlessness storytelling make this a unique and memorable viewing experience; at least, for those with strong constitutions.
The first 40 minutes of the film, encompassing the plot of Taeko's novel, is probably the hardest to take. I recall that at this year's Sundance Film Festival there was a lot of controversy because 12-year-old Dakota Fanning (Hide and Seek) was in a movie—Hounddog—that implied her character was raped. I can't judge Hounddog, as I haven't seen it, but whatever Fanning's character went through can't be close to what happens to young Mitsuko in Strange Circus. In fact, I think if this were an American movie, or received wider distribution in this country, the parents of young Rie Kuwana would have to answer to a shocked public outcry.
That said, I rarely moralize and—though I was certainly troubled—I couldn't help but admire Sono's fearlessness in storytelling, as well as his talent as a director. While Strange Circus could reasonably be criticized for its self-consciously appalling storyline, Sono's skills elevate the movie far above sadistic, soft-core pornography. With a beautiful classical music score, and artfully composed shots, Strange Circus casts a spell and leaves a lasting impression—though many might want to try to forget it. A lot of credit also must go to the movie's strong cast; with such sensationalist material the potential for turning in camp performances is very high. However, every actor plays his or her part with an admirable amount of gravity.
However, by the movie's last half hour, the strain of producing four films a year begins to show. While most of Strange Circus seems meticulously constructed, at a certain point it seems like Sono began thinking about his next project and rushed this one to completion. Suddenly the shots don't seem very imaginative; the music no longer enhances the action; and, most importantly, Sono allows the film and its actors to take a frenzied, manic turn that is not as interesting or satisfying as the rest of the movie's understated peculiarity.
While I wouldn't say I enjoyed watching Strange Circus, I am happy I experienced it. There is something thrilling about watching a talented filmmaker explore the nether corners of his imagination and boldly displaying what he's found there. I'm certainly glad not all films are like this; but I'm equally glad at least a few are.
The transfer on the DVD is clear and bright—almost too clear, if you know what I mean. This is not the film you want to use to show off your new home theater with. TLA Releasing has also included some minor extras—a short featurette, a photo gallery, and trailer.
The Rebuttal Witnesses
My wife provided what is probably the majority opinion of the film. The evening after we watched it together she said: "I was thinking about Strange Circus all day at work. I decided I really, really hate it."
Strange Circus is a difficult film to provide a subjective grade for. I think most people who watch it will find it to be an unpleasant experience, and in that sense one could argue it deserves a poor grade. However, I also think Sono has, for the most part, successfully realized his vision. It just so happens that most will find his vision repugnant.
Still, I count myself in what I assume is the minority. I can say watching Strange Circus was an enriching experience. And those who search it out will probably not be disappointed.
I'm sure some people wouldn't mind stringing up Sono, but I say not guilty.
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Scales of Justice
Studio: TLA Releasing
• Making-of Featurette
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