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Fantastic Fest Review: Love Exposure

By  · Published on October 6th, 2009

It turns out that selling this film to you, dear reader, is not a matter of convincing you that a movie about an expert upskirt picture taker is worthwhile. It’s also not a matter of convincing you that an epic love story that explores cults and Japanese sub-cultures is worthwhile. It’s a simple matter of convincing you that sitting down to watch a 4-hour movie isn’t excruciating. Once you get over those hurdles, what awaits on the other side is a fantastic film about love, life, religion, belief and family made by an expert filmmaker at his best.

Yu (Takahira Nishajima) is a young Catholic whose father Tetsu (Atsuro Watabe) has become a priest after his wife dies. Demanding his son repent his sins, and with no real sins to repent, Yu begins lying and then begins committing actual sins in order to have something to report back – the main sin of taking upskirt photos becoming his true life calling. After getting caught in the act by Koike (Sakura Ando) who is stalking him in a strange plot to get his family to join the cultish Zero Church, Yu then loses a bet and has to go into the city dressed in drag and kiss the first girl he sees. He saves the beautiful Yoko (Hikari Mitsushima) from a gang and kisses her. He instantly falls deeply in love with her, and she instantly falls deeply in love with his drag-persona Sasori. Then, just for fun, Tetsu falls in love, leaves the church and marries Yoko’s mother making Yu and Yoko step-siblings.

It’s a seriously tangled web, but the movie executes all of it in such a fascinating way that the hours fly by. And yes, it really is four hours. It’s hard to believe that a movie can maintain such a high level of entertainment for that long. It’s especially surprising because while I’m a huge fan of the director’s previous work (notably Noriko’s Dinner Table and Suicide Club), Sion Sono is known for having some trouble with pacing in his movies. In fact, at 108 minutes, his previous film Strange Circus feels much longer than the 4-hour Love Exposure.

The film covers a lot of ground, but it isn’t epic exactly. At least that’s not the right word for it – there are no sweeping shots of vistas or long drawn-out silences for dramatic effect. The entire film is full to the brim with dialog and action and strange situations. It’s long, sure, but I couldn’t name a scene that should be cut or even shortened. It even manages to work in one scene of silence near the middle where Yu and Yoko spend two days on a secluded beach barely speaking to each other, and after the fast pace of everything preceding it, it’s a welcome reprieve that gives the audience a minute to let everything sink in and to think about what we’re seeing.

Plus, in a clever move, the entire first hour is a set up of each of the tragic beginnings of the four main characters followed by the title screen which pops up 1/4th of the way into the movie. It’s subtle, but it does its job of breaking up the flick into two non-equal parts with the recognition that watching a 3-hour movie seems slightly more realistic than the alternative.

The brilliance of the film is in just how much it explores without ever becoming boring or trite. The sheer amount of concepts (both simple and deep) is mind boggling. Yu has an upbringing that no one would be envious of – his father loses and regains his faith and ultimately abandons his son, the girl he loves simultaneously wants nothing to do with him and everything to do with a woman he dresses up as, and he’s struggling to embrace his fame as a pre-eminent photographer who snaps shots of the underwear of unwitting girls in skirts. Sono once again explores the convoluted concept of family – what it means to belong, what it means to have a role in that group – by shifting each person’s responsibilities and allowing for the definition to become far more frayed and loose than most directors are comfortable with. Almost every character is desperate for love and acceptance, and they are almost all willing to take on any demands that come of them as long as they feel what they deem as love in return. Yet at the center of everything is one young man’s journey to become a man he can be proud of (with little guidance from his father) and gain the returned love of the young woman he’s fallen hopelessly for.

What’s better is that none of the topics explored (from Priesthood to perversion) are done so in an exploitative way. Love Exposure touches on religion, family, suicide, true love, panties, erections, kidnapping, brainwashing, cults, and rejection but it’s all done so in a sweet way. I realize that makes no sense, but the best example I have is of Yu’s particular dilemma when it comes to Yoko. Whenever he sees her (starting from their first kiss and a fortunate breeze that lifts her skirt up) he cannot help but get an erection, but he’s reserving it only for her. It’s treated as the kind of thing reserved for epic poetry or Shakespearan sonnets. It’s a sexual tool, but it’s treated as an object, an outward sign of his pure love. Again, I realize that none of this makes sense, but it works incredibly well in the film so that none of the sexual content ever feels cheap or easy. It’s there because sex is a part of life and a part of romance and love. Yu is saving himself for Yoko, and the audience gets a very straightforward metaphor for that.

There’s a moment where Yu (dressed as a woman) tells Yoko that lesbianism isn’t wrong. He’s obviously trying to win her favor even if it means he has to love her from behind a wig, but the point he’s making is one the entire film makes – that love in its many forms is beautiful no matter what society or religion try to claim. That no single group has a monopoly on how to define expressions of love.

In the 7th or 8th act, depending on whether you’re keeping count or not, the film shifts from the personal lives and tribulations of the characters by placing the entire family into the Zero Church – a cult that might has well have been called the Schmientologists for all its subtlety. Even Yu, desperate for Yoko’s love, joins up and seeks to destroy it from within. The story is able to do this because it’s already shown each character to be weak in a very specific way that attracts cults. Each of them, even Yoko with her beauty and elitism, don’t feel accepted. Thus, Sono weaves together the strands of each character’s failings into a tapestry that ultimately stands as a comment on the insidious nature of cults who care only about making money and exploiting their members. Well into the fourth hour of the movie, the filmmaker delivers something of incredible substance in a very, very entertaining way.

Yet even though the film explores so much depth and has so much dialog, it also includes several fight scenes including an honest-to-God bloodbath near the end. Somehow, these tonal shifts make perfect sense – a testament to Sion Sono using that long running time to the fullest by carefully sculpting the characters through extreme actions. Yu takes a long time to become a killing machine, but when he finally does, it works brilliantly and the result is surprising yet fulfilling. In fact, the movie almost never goes where you’d expect it to but it never goes so far out from left field that it becomes absurd or weird for weird’s sake. Everything done (even the stranger parts) is done to build characters or move the story forward.

It’s an epic journey, but it’s a personal one. In what could have become heavy with faux-drama, the film is hilarious throughout stopping only briefly every so often to display the severity and weight of what we’re laughing at. Every character is fascinating and well acted, and the story flows freely from scenario to scenario naturally (if not mostly satirically), and there’s something for everyone included. And the ending, oh the ending, where it all could have fallen apart after such a long ride Sono and company manage to create one of the most meaningful and surprisingly satisfying endings. In fact, it’s probably the only way the movie (and Yu and Yoko’s story) could have ended.

Over all, it seems daunting at four hours, but who amongst us hasn’t wasted an entire afternoon watching 8 or 9 episodes of Lost back to back? If you are willing to donate your time to the cause, Love Exposure will amaze, amuse, raise questions, and leave you happy that you made the commitment.

The Upside: Four whole hours of fantastic filmmaking, great acting, an engaging story, humor, sadness and panties.

The Downside: Just as I was on the edge of my seat, we took an intermission break.

On the Side: The original cut was right at 6 hours long.

Movie stuff at VanityFair, Thrillist, IndieWire, Film School Rejects, and The Broken Projector [email protected] | Writing short stories at Adventitious.