Original release: December 24th, ampoule 2005
Running time: 108 minutes
Writer and director: Sion Sono
Cast: Masumi Miyazaki, sales Issei Ishida, Rie Kuwana, Mai Takahashi, Hiroshi Ohguchi
It’s taken me a while to conjure up thoughts for this review. It’s no surprise to me that director Sion Sono doesn’t shy away from potentially or even inevitably controversial material; after seeing a number of his films, this is a given. I only recently got around to watching a film that’s actually quite an early one in his career, but Strange Circus turned out to be the film that made me question some of the content Sono chose for the first time.
While watching a film about child abuse and marital rape with lingering visual suggestions of deeply disturbing ideas, Strange Circus made me wonder if there’s anything that should dictate boundaries for art and self-expression. If directors like Brian De Palma and Quentin Tarantino have to answer questions about overt exploitation (perceived hatred of women and a love affair with violence, respectively), then Sion Sono has to do the same, even more so. This has to be said, because Strange Circus is an artfully made psychological thriller with one of those ingenious twist endings, while at the same time and in the same context it also tackles very serious and real issues of domestic abuse.
The film on the one hand taps into the state of mind that’s been victimised by the persistent and unbearable trauma caused by an evil predator. We get a disturbing insight into what it’s like to be at home when home is the least safe place to be; living in a constant state of fear of what will happen next. Twelve year old Mitsuko (played by Rie Kuwana and Mai Takahashi) is afraid and we’re afraid with her; but we’re also angry, because the predator behind that door is her own father (Hiroshi Ohguchi).
Mitsuko repeatedly telling us “I was sentenced to death at birth” comes from a child who was never given a chance to grow up and has accepted a life of terror. Her mother Sayuri (Masumi Miyazaki) completes the dysfunctional family; she doesn’t try to stop the abuse and is also being abused frequently. It’s truly disturbing to see this grown woman gradually losing her mind and becoming jealous of her daughter. Abuse can take place when the abuser gets just enough support from the enabler, and with that, Sono gives an accurate portrait of how domestic abuse unfolds behind closed doors.
The film begins to show elements of psychological thriller quite soon after establishing these circumstances. Highly metaphorical scenes reminiscent of the films David Lynch visualise the inner state of mind of the traumatised and we soon find it difficult to distinguish between Sayuri and Mitsuko. As we begin to lose grip on what is real and what isn’t, Strange Circus goes even further by introducing Taeko (also played by Masumi Miyazaki), a wheelchair-bound novelist who wrote this same but apparently fictional story about a dysfunctional family. Her new assistant Yuji became infatuated with her and he’s determined to find out the truth behind the author’s novel.
At the time of writing this review, I haven’t managed to overcome my own conflicted views on Strange Circus. While the film seems want to understand victims of abuse and treats the subject with respect, there’s always the question whether there’s any room for entertainment value in this context. The truth is, the film is a superb psychological thriller with amazing surrealist sequences that flawlessly click into the narrative’s internal logic.
There’s no doubt that it explores domestic abuse and its effects that linger on for many years after, but it does that with what I would call a genre-approach. Visual style of any kind – perhaps for good reasons – tends to be frowned upon when dealing with a certain kind of content. Strange Circus is very intelligent with a shocking twist ending, but should it be so? Can a movie like this be clever or is there only a narrow range of tones that is suitable for this subject matter? The overall quality here is as good as any other film from the director, but his material is more disturbing than any Sono film I can think of – I’m still not sure if Strange Circus deserves criticism for that.
Arpad is a Film Studies graduate and passionate photographer (he picked up the camera and started taking stills just as he began his studies of moving pictures). He admires directors that can tell a story first of all in images. More or less inevitably, Brian De Palma has become Aprad’s favourite filmmaker.
Then there’s Arpad’s interest in anime. He was just a boy when he saw Nausicaä of the Valley of the Wind on an old VHS and was hypnotised by the story of friendship, devotion and sacrifice. He still marvels at the uncompromising and courageous storytelling in Japanese anime, and wonders about the western audience with its ever growing appetite for “Japanemation”.