Sion Sono’s follow-up to the extraordinary Love Exposure (2009) is another long and convoluted tale, but without the scope and exuberance of the preceding film; rather, it seems to be a return to the dark spirit of Suicide Club (2001), with its provocative, inventive gore and an enigmatic, oblique approach to meaning. The opening scene is brilliantly incongruous and announces the strangeness and brutality to come: a banal domestic scene depicting an unhappy-looking housewife microwaving her family’s dinner is filmed like a violent action scene, the fast, jarring editing exuding phenomenal aggression. Rarely has a microwave seemed so menacing.
Cold Fish charts the descent of the meek Shamoto, owner of a small exotic-fish shop, into violence and madness after an unfortunate encounter with the brash and ruthless Murata, owner of a much bigger rival fish store. The mechanics of Murata’s manipulation and Shamoto’s gradual breakdown are superbly observed, the indication of the date and time of each unfolding event adding to the sense of an implacable mechanism at work. The direction is controlled and well-paced, although the film does feel overlong. The story is based on a real-life crime, known as the ‘Saitama serial murders of dog lovers’. Sono has transferred it to the world of tropical fish retailing, which adds to the surreal quality and visual beauty of the film, thanks in part to the multi-coloured exotic fish and immersive aquarium atmosphere of Murata’s enormous shop.
With not one sympathetic character, the film offers an extremely downbeat view of mankind. Women are submissive, devious, immoral, and seem to enjoy rough sex with unattractive men, which would be somewhat problematic if it wasn’t for the fact that men are depicted equally negatively: although Shamoto’s sensitive man is initially contrasted with Murata’s thug, both will turn out to be dangerous and violent, particularly to the women around them.
Although the film is awash with copious amounts of blood, dismembering and eye-popping, alarmingly inventive murder scenes, which may deter the more squeamish, Cold Fish is also blackly funny throughout. There are great moments of macabre humour and absurd violence, some involving a bizarre display of Catholic artefacts and a statue of the Virgin Mary (interestingly, Love Exposure was about Catholic guilt). Former comedian Denden contributes to the comic side of the film, giving a fantastic performance as the over-the-top, sinister and disturbingly funny Murata.
Just as with Suicide Club, the deliberate weirdness and detached tone of Cold Fish may initially leave audiences befuddled, but this a sign of its complexity. It is an uncompromising film, with no chance of the redemption glimpsed in Love Exposure, but it is a triumphantly unhinged achievement from an intelligent and profoundly individual filmmaker, who clearly delights in darkness.
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