Strange Circus (2005)

MARCH 4, 2013

GENRE: ASIAN, PSYCHOLOGICAL
SOURCE: STREAMING (NETFLIX INSTANT)

For the past couple years, I've watched movies that are both foreign and "unusual" (read: kind of fucked up) on my birthday, and I wanted to go all out this time because it'd be the last time I spend part of *my* day worrying about seeing a movie in time. Well, it's not as horror-driven as the others, but I doubt I could ever get more upsetting a movie than Strange Circus (Japanese: Kimyô na sâkasu), which involved a young girl who is being raped by her father before she starts enjoying it and wanting to take her mother's place permanently, with tragic results. And that's just the first half hour or so - it goes even further into WTF territory by the time it's done.

As you might expect, there are a lot of head scratching plot developments, and I'm not even sure I fully understood it all by the end. To keep things from getting TOO disturbing (relatively speaking), we thankfully never see the young actress during the sex scenes - it's always played by the woman playing the mother, as we're seeing it through her head where she has taken the mother's place. But as the plot goes on, we learn just how much of an "unreliable narrator" she is, on top of the fact that there's the possibility that all of it is made up by an author looking to score a best-seller. Oh, and the entire thing is wrapped up in bookends where the story is being told at some goofy circus/stage show, so when you add in the flashback driven narrative of the third act and all the plot twists, it starts to make Tale of Two Sisters look kids' show simple in comparison.

But man, what a flick. Even if I was risking an aneurysm trying to keep it all straight, I was enjoying director Shion Sono's vivid photography and the impressive set design, particularly the classroom that looked made out of blood covered sheets. Folks have been telling me to watch Sono's movies for a while now (Cold Fish seems to be the go-to request), and I have to say if they're all as nutty but enjoyable to look at as this, I won't be putting it off much longer. The story's pace got a bit sluggish at times (particularly when the movie first switches focus to the author and her assistant), but it never stopped being visually interesting, making it a lot easier to forgive. And considering how many twists and turns it takes (through multiple layers - it's a story about a story about a story, after all), that it clocks in at around 1:45 is actually kind of impressive (Cold Fish is 2.5 hrs long, which is the REAL reason I've been putting it off).

So how is it a horror movie? Well, like Audition, I think going in expecting one is detrimental, though in a different way. While Audition is very much a horror movie, it's best not to know that going in, and letting that element shock you like the characters in the movie. Here, it's a "how far will this go" tale of madness and psychological obsession, culminating in a gruesome, highly disturbing visual that firmly puts the movie in genre territory but hampers folks like me (even with my casual approach to spoilers) from discussing it much, and if someone asked I'd just tell them the movie was a psychological thriller. It's right gory though, I'll say that much.

I got to thinking after - it must be nice to make a movie like this without being vilified and hoarded by negative press right off the bat. A few years ago, Dakota Fanning made a movie called Hounddog where she was raped, and long before anyone had the chance to see it, folks crusaded against it, resulting in a VERY limited release (11 theaters, most of them dropping it after a week) and zero fanfare since. I can't imagine what this movie, which also has these elements but adds incest, would go through over here - it'd probably be edited down to nothing and STILL buried. But Sono seems to have been able to make the film as he liked and free of the sort of picketing and overblown outrage that would accompany something even half as taboo as this had it been made in the States. Not that folks don't have a right to piss and moan, but since the film is ultimately a tragedy and an account of how this sort of despicable act can affect more than just the victim, all of it is justified - none of it is meant to titillate or glorify the act, which is a lot more than I can say for a few "rape-revenge" type films (not to mention borderline comedic adult films like Taboo 2). I'd say those would be far more damaging and upsetting to a victim of rape or incest than this is, and if you get past the puzzle nature of the plot and usual Japanese "WTFery", there's a real, sad story at its heart. Highly recommended for those who can stomach its nature without getting on a soapbox.

What say you?

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