Love Exposure

Love Exposure

Format: Cinema

Date: 30 October 2009

Venue: ICA Cinema, London

Director: Sion Sono

Writer: Sion Sono

Original title: Ai no mukidashi

Cast: Takahiro Nishijima, Hikari Mitsushima

Japan 2008

237 mins

‘Love, the greatest thing of them all. If I speak in the tongues of men and angels, but have not love, I have become sounding brass or a tinkling cymbal’. We’re three quarters of the way through Sion Sono’s Love Exposure, Beethoven’s Seventh Symphony is soaring and the beautiful Yoko is reciting Corinthians 13 to her star-crossed lover, tears rolling down her young cheeks. This beautiful moment of epiphany might not be what you’d expect from Sono - after all, his biggest commercial hit to date opened with the gory mass suicide of 54 teenage schoolgirls - but it is just one of many spiritual milestones in an incredible odyssey of self-realisations. Madcap scenes of sex and violence still drive the action but there is an underlying simplicity in the film’s message. For all its blood-spattered school uniforms and endless crotch shots, the film is, at heart, an elevating hymn to the redemptive power of love.

But as the old adage goes, the course of true love never did run smooth. Especially when you throw mistaken identities and a huge dose of religious guilt into the mix. In fact, this particular bumpy ride lasts a full four hours. Perfectly careering from cartoony farce to serious drama, Love Exposure traces the relationship between Yu, ‘a high school voyeuristic photo maniac’, and Yoko, a man-hating whirlwind of teenage angst. The couple first meet when Yu, a champion in the art of tosatsu (the pastime of surreptitiously photographing up girls’ skirts), is performing a forfeit by dressing up as a woman and Yoko is single-handedly beating up a pack of male thugs. This love story, tortuous enough from the outset, is further complicated by the forbidden romantic relationship between Yu’s father, a Roman Catholic priest, and Yoko’s stepmother, a hysterical mini-skirted banshee. An added spanner in the works comes in the form of Koike, a teenage recruiter for the sinister Christian cult, the Zero Church. Shots of crucifixes, erections and knife-toting school girls quickly ensue. When the opening credits tell us the film is ‘based on a true account’, we can only assume Sono is joking.

And yet, while Love Exposure creates a magnificently alien universe, there is a truth in the characters and their relationships that keeps us gripped despite the film’s marathon length. Yu’s story of self-discovery - from his childish desire to rebel against his father, his initially sexless curiosity about sin, his adolescent lust and his final mature understanding of love - has a universal quality to it. Indeed, as all the characters undergo their own personal transformations, the film takes on an epic, biblical quality. With both Catholicism and the Zero Church attempting to assert oppressive moral standards, the film raises interesting questions about faith, honesty and definitions of normality and perversity. A little like John Waters in his strange combination of grotesque obscenity and wholesome innocence, Sono creates an idealistic world where love sees past the superficial: perversions are accepted and celebrated. As Yu says to Yoko, ‘You’re definitely a misfit and I can live with that’. Given the shock factor of some of the images, it is to be hoped that audiences can too.

Eleanor McKeown

Love Exposure is availabe on DVD in the UK from Third Window from January 25.

Buy Love Exposure (2 discs) [DVD] [2007] from Amazon



Format: Cinema

Release date: 16 October 2009

Venues:Curzon Soho, Gate, Ritzy, Screen on the Green (London) and selected key cities

Distributor: Metrodome

Director: Park Chan-wook

Writers: Chung Seo-kyung, Park Chan-wook

Original title: Bakjwi

Cast: Song Kang-ho, Kim Ok-vin, Shin Ha-kyun

South Korea 2009

133 mins

It may be unfair to continually expect Park Chan-wook to deliver a new movie as thrilling as his critically acclaimed 2004 film Oldboy. But although Thirst, joint winner of the Jury Prize at this year’s Cannes Film Festival, lacks its predecessor’s shocking originality, Park’s formidable talents still result in a flawed but entertainingly perverse love story, one that’s also a thriller, a horror film and a black comedy.

Song Kang-ho, star of the hugely successful film The Host, plays Sang-hyun, a priest who is utterly devoted to his flock, so much so that he volunteers for a medical experiment to find a cure for a mysterious but lethal virus. When the trial fails, his life is saved by a blood transfusion that not only miraculously brings him back to life, but also turns him into a vampire - a discovery he makes only gradually, when his skin starts to sizzle in direct sunlight, and ugly, seething boils appear all over his body unless he slakes his thirst for blood. But still the compassionate priest, he is unwilling to let himself be consumed by this new bloodlust and has to find ways of satisfying his needs without harming people.

Things change when, in a plot twist inspired by Emile Zola’s Thérí¨se Raquin, he meets an old friend in hospital, who is now a pathetic, sniffling hypochondriac married to Tae-ju (played by the model-turned-actress Kim Ok-vin). She’s a young, beautiful woman who was taken in by his mother (an imposing, mah jong-playing matriarch) after the death of her parents, and later forced into the unhappy marriage. But Tae-ju’s air of vulnerability - she begs the priest for help in escaping her miserable life - masks a manipulative and strong-minded streak that’s only exposed after she and Sang-hyun become lovers.

The moral dilemmas involving carnal lust and chastity, religious guilt and Sang-hyun’s need for survival are undoubtedly intriguing (and are similar to the themes that course through much of Park’s work), and yet, the heady mix of blood and guts, sex, murder, the supernatural and the Catholic church never quite works as a coherent whole. The film undeniably has some brilliant, darkly comic moments, but it often feels like Park has tried to cram too much into Thirst, without ever really adding anything new to the vampire genre. His continuing collaboration with the cinematographer Chung Chung-hoon means that the film looks terrific, but elements of the plot are clumsily handled while the pacing is often erratic over the 133-minute running time (several scenes, including much of the opening, could have been left on the cutting room floor). In some ways, Park Chan-wook seems to have overindulged his fantastic imagination and creative ambition at the expense of tightness and cohesion. But if the result is slightly disappointing, it’s only because Park has already set the bar extraordinarily high.

Sarah Cronin


Le Donk

Format: Cinema

Release date: 9 October 2009

Venues: Curzon Soho, Gate, Ritzy, Screen Islington (London) and key cities

Distributor: Warp/Verve Pictures

Director: Shane Meadows

Cast: Paddy Considine, Dean Palinczuk, Shane Meadows, Olivia Colman

UK 2009

71 mins

As has been much publicised, Le Donk & Scor-Zay-Zee - the eighth film by Shane Meadows in 13 years - was made over five days (four consecutive days and one a few months later) and on a budget that seems preposterously low, even for a Meadows film. Shot on two DV cameras, behind one of which we frequently find Shane Meadows (playing himself), on real sets including a Travelodge hotel, backstage at an Arctic Monkeys show and what looks like the same row of Victorian terraced houses used in Meadows’s debut Smalltime (1996), the film makes no attempt to disguise its quickie-cheapness - in fact, it is almost worn as a badge of honour. The cast even wear the same clothes for the first three days - although this is perhaps to make continuity easier, or just to illustrate the poor personal hygiene of roadies.

The film has a simple premise: a Spinal Tap-like pseudo-documentary, it follows Le Donk, roadie to the stars (Paddy Considine), and his lodger-cum-protégé, rotund white Nottingham rapper Scor-Zay-Zee (Dean Palinczuk), as they blag their way onto an Arctic Monkeys bill at Manchester’s Old Trafford cricket ground. The dialogue is improvised around semi-scripted ideas as in HBO’s Curb your Enthusiasm and at times it’s almost as funny in that same cringing way.

Paddy Considine creates in Le Donk a character that is at times charming, cocky, confident and fun-loving, but often boorish, selfish or just plain ‘mardy’ - that particularly childish kind of sulkiness made famous (to certain parts of the country at least) by an Arctic Monkeys song. He moans, fumes and grumbles during an awkward drive from Nottingham to Manchester after being told the budget won’t cover three nights in the hotel. He is a Saxondale for the next generation (roadying for 90s indie-rockers Guided by Voices rather than Deep Purple) but equally out of time in 2009 (and out of place when not on the road). His old-fashioned idea of cool (fake American accent) seems at odds with Arctic Monkeys’ strong provincial identity (although they are starting to look and sound more like Led Zep as I write). But Considine somehow makes him a sympathetic character. Shane Meadows, as one of the two cameramen, can be seen and heard from behind the camera (failing to be a fly on the wall), offering much appreciated relationship advice when he isn’t laughing at or arguing with him.

Considine is of course a brilliant actor (he was easily the best thing about this year’s otherwise rather disappointing Red Riding Trilogy) and the film rises above the slightness of the plot thanks to the depth of his performance alone. But real-life rapper Scor-Zay-Zee proves himself worthy of his equal billing. Gormlessly wandering around, looking for somewhere to plug in his keyboard, or pulling ridiculous rapper poses for a photographer, he somehow pulls it off at the performance in front of the real (unknowing) Arctic Monkeys audience and shows himself to be a genuinely original and talented artist.

Le Donk & Scor-Zay-Zee was made as the first of a series of five-day features to be financed by Warp Films. Whatever the result of this initiative, Meadows’s film shows what is possible. Its simplicity, cheapness and speed of execution are its virtues, but it also succeeds as a touching portrait of ambitions and dreams and their relationship to reality.

Paul Huckerby


Katalin Varga

Format: Cinema

Release date: 9 October 2009

Venues: Barbican, Chelsea Cinema, Curzons Richmond and Soho (London) and key cities

Distributor: Artifical Eye

Director: Peter Strickland

Writer: Peter Strickland

Cast: Hilda Péter, Tibor Pí¡lffy, Norbert Tankí³, Fatma Mohamed

Romania/UK/Hungary 2009

82 mins

Just as the hype about the ‘New Wave’ in post-communist Romanian cinema seems to have settled down, October sees the theatrical release of two new films set in that country, although they have nothing else in common. Directed by a group of young Romanian directors and devised by Cristian Mungiu (4 Months, 3 Weeks and 2 Days), Tales from the Golden Age explores five urban legends from the nation’s troubled past. In contrast, Katalin Varga, directed by British writer-director Peter Strickland, offers a dark fable unfolding in the rural wilds of the Romanian hinterland with an unexcited, outdated look, and little interest in the cutting social criticism that has become the trademark of Eastern European filmmaking in the last few years. The film chronicles the journey of a young peasant’s wife who has to face her demons in the Transylvanian forest and is led to seek vengeance on the two men who violated her a decade earlier. Although the rape-revenge story may not sound original on paper, Katalin Varga is a daring, stylistically confident British feature debut that in its thirst for cinematic exploration and adventure recalls Asif Kapadia’s stunning The Warrior (2001), with which it also shares a spellbinding location and a bold belief in the compelling power of visual storytelling.

But why would a young filmmaker with no money and no knowledge of the foreign language want to make a film in Transylvania? ‘This was simply the place I chose to shoot in because it seemed to offer the right atmosphere for my story,’ says Strickland. ‘In a way, I thought I could be truer to myself with a film that is set in the mountains rather than in Reading, where I come from’. Yet, slim and elliptical as the narrative is, it feels at times as if the story is there to help explore the setting, rather than the other way round. This is especially true in the first part, when Katalin (impressively played by Hilda Péter), banished by her husband (and the entire village) after the discovery that he is not actually the father of their 11-year-old son Orbí¡n, sets out on a mission to hunt down her tormentors. Mother and son ride a horse-cart up into the Carpathians, sleeping in people’s barns, until they reach their destination. As Katalin finds and confronts Antal, the man who assaulted her, Strickland offers no simple tale of retribution, but explores a painfully complex emotional situation in a riveting manner.

Given the film’s precise aesthetic and increasingly chilling, expressionistic feel, it comes as little surprise to learn that Peter Strickland’s key points of reference for Katalin Varga were Werner Herzog and the great Russian film poets Tarkovsky and Paradjanov. A good part of the film alternates between sun-drenched expanses of the Carpathian fields and mountains, looming forests and murky nocturnal rural interiors. All are equally unsettling once Strickland abandons conventional art-house meandering camera pans and cryptic myth-making to opt instead for an increasingly rough photography with abrupt scene changes and searching close-ups. Infusing his elegantly wrought images with a throbbing, electronic-choral score that is very much at odds with the naturalistic setting, Strickland is clearly more concerned with the human dimension of the morally intricate scenario, revealing the astonishingly beautiful landscape as a place where a brutal sort of justice will eventually prevail.

Showing an obvious talent for creating a misty atmosphere of dread, Strickland keeps the time setting eerily vague. The horse-cart suggests a bygone era until Katalin picks up her mobile phone for the first time to talk to her husband, and it is to Strickland’s credit that he makes use of a number of different tactics to subvert our expectations. ‘It makes people angry when they see Antal,’ he says, ‘because they expect him to be this evil monster. And Katalin does too. But evil people are not evil every single working hour, and by not showing the crime he committed against her I’m furthering our confusion, so the audience is almost like a jury in this sense’.

Some may feel that Strickland veers a little too much into metaphysical territory at the expense of keeping the tension up. Others may dislike his partiality to painterly compositions and Tarkovskian cinematic poetry. Despite such arguable flaws, Katalin Varga often hits a note of genuine otherworldliness, and the power of this slow-burning, nightmarish tale is utterly compelling, contrasting with Strickland’s modest expectations when he was making the film: ‘I really thought we would fail,’ he admits. ‘But I also thought, if I screw up I might as well fail in style. On a very personal level, this film was an adventure, and we reconciled ourselves to the fact that we had the memories of making it - because filmmaking is so difficult when you are outside the system that you have to at least try to have a good time with it.’

Pamela Jahn



Format: DVD

Date: 24 August 2009

Distributor: BFI

Director: Don Levy

Writer: Don Levy

Cast: Michael Gothard, Mona Chin, Helen Mirren

UK 1967

137 mins

Herostratus in a nut shell: callow young poet and narcissist played by Michael Gothard decides to indulge in the ultimate act of narcissism - suicide - and flog the whole thing to the ghastly advertising industry. All of this is wrapped up in dyspeptically groovy, ideologically limp, Situationist-lite-lite, pop-modernism.

The idea that marketing/advertising has no moral bounds; that it is a crass, vulgar, cynical, pervasive, opportunist industry should come as no surprise to 21st-century mortals living under global capitalism. Indeed, it should strike most people as being utterly obvious that it is so. Why, only some months ago I recall television images of Jade Goody being shovelled into the grave amongst wreathes with the Marmite logo emblazoned upon them. So the observations made by writer-director Don Levy in this film about capitalism, advertising, commodity fetishism, spectacle, youth and mortality seem merely quaint and rather superficial.

This is not simply because it is an anachronism, there is a whole slew of critical culture contemporaneous to Herostratus that remains potent. For example, Godard’s Two or Three Things I Know About Her (2 ou 3 choses que je sais d’elle) was released in 1967, as was Guy Debord’s Society of the Spectacle, but Levy’s film is not to be filed alongside such beasts because it just does not share their wit, ideological depth or analytical chutzpah.

As audio-visual spectacle, Herostratus is rather spectacular (for a bit) and has all the expected provocative thrills of modernism: jump cuts, deft use of noise and silence, fragmented narrative, non-sequitur. However, the content does not merit the duration. At two hours and 17 minutes, this film has it longueurs… longueurs that last approximately two hours. One feels that a postcard-sized idea has been stretched across a Guernica-sized canvas. Herostratus also seems to ape the very thing it denigrates in its cheap juxtaposition of cinematic tropes and objects - for example a laughably trite sex-and-meat scene (a striptease melds with forensic shots of butchery). The film seems to convey the confusion of its protagonist and the protagonist’s perception of the world as dissonant plastic space by contrasting excellent, surgically precise camera choreography and montage with cooler, looser, improvised scenes. But I suspect this is also testament to Levy’s intellectual confusion.

Herostratus has been released by the BFI as part of its series of kitsch nostalgic DVD releases entitled Flipside. Undoubtedly, it is a great transfer in terms of the technical reproduction, but if it had zombies, pornography, violence and a cameo appearance from Arthur Lowe, and was a give-away with the Sunday Telegraph, I might shell out for a centre-right newspaper and my grimace might mutate into a grin. Right now, my mouth is fixed in a rictus of callow disgruntlement. Marmite for me.

Philip Winter

La t&#234te contre les murs

La Tete contre les murs

Format: DVD

Date: 21 September 2009

Distributor: Eureka Entertainment

Director: Georges Franju

Writers: Jean-Pierre Mocky, Jean-Charles Pichon

Based on the novel by: Hervé Bazin

Cast: Jean-Pierre Mocky, Anouk Aimée, Pierre Brasseur

France 1959

93 mins

La tête contre les murs (The Keepers) started as the pet project of Jean-Pierre Mocky, who wrote the script (from Hervé Bazin’s novel) and cast the actors, including himself in the lead role as a bequiffed, leather-clad, motorcycling rebel who finds himself ‘imprisoned’ in a mental institution by his lawyer father. Although Mocky went on to become a prolific director himself, the respected documentarist and co-founder of the Cinématèque Française Georges Franju was hired to make the film, which was his feature debut.

François Gérane (Mocky) is a young rock’n’roller pitched against straight society, who refuses to find a steady job and drops out of art college because he is not interested in ‘methodical learning’ – a French James Dean for the Johnny Hallyday generation perhaps. To get rid of him, his authoritarian father has him committed to a mental hospital. That institution is far from a ‘Bedlam’, more a slow-paced country retreat, but what one patient calls a ‘cushy number’ is for the kicks-loving motocross rider François ‘a living death’. With François locked up, the film takes on a more languid pace, and in this way is very different from Hollywood films with a similar subject matter. It is without the melodrama of Anatole Litvak’s The Snake Pit (1948) or the sensationalism of Sam Fuller’s Shock Corridor (1963). We are denied the gratuitous scenes of the other patients taking turns to show their idiosyncratic ailments that litter such Hollywood fare. The patients or inmates are largely subdued and rarely aggressive, lost in their own worlds unless encouraged to work together holding hands and walking in a circle – a child-like ‘Ring o’ Rosies’ game. But François is falling in love with his visitor Stéphanie (Anouk Aimée) and needs to get out…

As Michel Foucault wrote in Madness and Civilisation (1961), such houses of confinement were developed in the 17th century for those by whom society feels threatened (madness replacing leprosy in the popular imagination, he argues), an attitude still strongly felt in 1959, it seems. Although Dr Valmont (Pierre Brasseur) declares the hospital to have two functions – ‘to cure the insane and protect society’ – the debate is as to which is the more important. These two points of view are represented by Dr Valmont and Dr Emery. François and his friend Heurtevent (Charles Aznavour, brilliant in his award-winning screen debut) have the misfortune of being patients of the former.

The film is shot entirely on location but often seems slightly unreal. Franju typically – and certainly when teamed with cinematographer Eugen Schüfftan (Quai des brumes, Lilith) – makes a film full of poetic and atmospheric images. Shots of motorbikes driving down poplar-lined lanes may not propel the narrative forward but certainly look stunning. Fellow patients carry doves for no apparent reason and ride on a mini-railway carrying them to and from their work details. The music by composer Maurice Jarre (the father of Jean-Michel at the beginning of his long film career) adds to this almost-strange atmosphere perfectly. Franju’s lyrical style adds to the film without ever dominating it or making it too whimsical. With the Gothic horror story of his next film, Franju (again with Schüfftan and Jarre) was freed to go much further stylistically to create his masterpiece and perhaps the most hauntingly beautiful film ever made – Les Yeux sans visage (Eyes Without a Face.

Paul Huckerby

See also Judex by the same director.