‘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.
Love Exposure is availabe on DVD in the UK from Third Window from January 25.
Buy Love Exposure (2 discs) [DVD]  from Amazon