Guilty of Romance Review
A new Sion Sono film is a prospect which triggers childish, giddy excitement for many, as the perpetually creative director serves up filmic treats which are invariably colourful, exhilarating, and downright bizarre. Regardless of whether the creator of some of Japan's most excessively imaginative film output is to your taste, it's difficult to refute the sheer energy of Sono's delivery, and as the mischievous director prods, pokes, and unleashes full scale assaults on your sense of morality, you'll either enjoy or endure the challenging visuals he streams to your consciousness.
Having honed his prodding, poking and 'unleashing full scale assault' skills with the overwhelmingly disturbing (and worryingly thrilling) Cold Fish, Sono follows up his intelligent 2010 bloodfest with Guilty of Romance, a film whose very title hints at the dark dichotomy encased inside. Yet whilst this latest depiction of aching human emotions, suffocating repression, and shocking depravity stimulates our cerebral hunger, its overall delivery and second half rambling leaves us with an eventual sensation of emptiness and a moral paucity which, even for fans of extreme cinema, generates a vacuum which is too substantial to fully reconcile.
This unsatisfying outcome is all the more disappointing given the promise shown at the earlier stages of this twisted tale. Guilty of Romance rewards us richly during the opening scenes, with a kaleidoscope of colour providing a suitably gaudy backdrop for a creatively grisly murder. Even at this early moment, Sono begins to prod at our sensibilities and rudely awakens us from our lazy slumber of stereotyping, presenting a murder scene which is bizarre, gruesome, and yet intelligent. The death scene depicts a body which has had certain limbs and appendages replaced with those of a mannequin, and with this highly visual metaphor, so begins the provocative and shocking study of gender politics in Japanese culture.
Megumi Kagurazaka once again proves, after her successful role in Sono's Cold Fish, that she is capable of delivering so much more than her mesmerising good looks, as she portrays the fragile and hideously repressed Izumi. The perpetrator of her repression is her insensitive and passively aggressive husband, a famous author whose feverishly received 'romantic' novels depict diametrically opposite scenarios than those being experienced at the staid marital home. Sono presents these characters as greatly exaggerated caricatures, with Izumi driving herself to ridiculously precise extremes to meet the excessive demands of her anally retentive husband. Despite its relatively sedate pacing, this section of the film proves one of the most absorbing, with Sono using some clever tricks to demonstrate the progression of character's emotional states. In particular, the view Izumi has of the outside world as her husband leaves for work each day is a subliminally intelligent technique.
The gender politics which play out are both incisive and shocking. Kagurazaka's Izumi propels us on a tumultuous emotional journey as she experiences an initially reluctant awakening, with her participation in some revealing modelling mirroring the actress's own career. The quiet, fragile Izumi has a desperate yearning to experience life, and we share, at first, her giddiness at the liberation of her sexuality. Yet Izumi's inexperience and misunderstanding of the framework of sexual interaction leaves her unable to anchor herself safely, and as her liberation progresses, she pushes forward into a world of uncertainty, danger, and exploitation.
Most disturbing of all is the veneer of respectability and politeness which masks the sexual activity, whether normal or depraved. Not only is Izumi's 'respectable' husband detestable with his formal and often cruel treatment of Izumi; the mother of Mitsuko (a professor and prostitute whom Izumi adopts as a diabolical role model) is frighteningly composed as she delivers a polite and smiling character assassination on her promiscuous daughter, stooping so low as to suggest that Mitsuko is depraved and corrupt because of her contamination by her father's polluted seed. What further insult than for Mitsuko to have been polluted - via family blood - by the sexual depravity of the male? As Mitsuko's mother delivers this chilling verdict with a gentle smile, we squirm in discomfort, at both the literal accussation, and the implied suggestion of abuse.
In a particularly poignant moment, Sono delivers a scathing comment on the representation of women when depicting a character offering sex to a man in the street. Initially, the man is delighted by the offer of free sex; yet when the woman discusses the financial charges, he walks away in unconcealed disgust. Such is the repression and starvation of power from the woman, that she can't even profit from this most intimate and degrading of services. With these challenging scenarios, Sono recalls some of Natsuo Kirino's most bitter and depressing statements on gender.
The heady blend of colour, shocks, sex, brutality, euphemism, caricature, and moral decline would perhaps have resulted in another compelling outing for the provocative director, but his execution unbalances the daring mix of content in two major areas. Firstly, the copious scenes of exploitation against women and their ambiguous reactions to their exploitation, whilst being intelligently placed and arguably - to some extent - necessary, ultimately prove too frequent; one or two scenes of such material would be distressing and effective, but the volume of these sequences leave you feeling nauseated and bereft of hope. Secondly, the intertwining of Kafka's The Castle, and some poetry from Mitsuko, lend the film an unnecessary literary element which proves repetitive and uninspiring.
Guilty of Romance contains many Sion Sono staple elements to keep fans happy, and in terms of stunning visuals and stimulating ideas, the film certainly delivers. Yet the introduction of literary themes and the excessive depiction of sexual exploitation of women (which is, of course, a central and essential plot theme) means that the final output is a jumble of scenes, ideas, and occasional rambling dialogue, lacking a cohesive anchoring. It's not nearly as enjoyable as some of Sono's other disturbing products, yet fans of his earlier work will find plenty to absorb here.
Eureka Entertainment are responsible for releasing some fantastic titles, and are a very well respected label. And whilst it's great that they bring films such as this to a UK audience, I have to report that the image quality on this transfer wavers between - rather like Sono's film - the very good and the disappointing. Region 2 encoded for a European audience, the film is presented in a 1.85:1 aspect ratio, and during the stronger moments, the colour distribution is solid (an essential component in a film as colourful as this), and the accuracy pleasing.
At other times, the colours look disappointingly washed out and pale, with bright lights over-saturating their surroundings, and darks not proving substantial enough to be convincing. There are moments where the level of grain increases and becomes distracting. The resultant loss of accuracy and definition is a real shame.
Audio is also something of a disappointment, although it has to be said that the delivery is consistent and solid enough, with convincing bass depth, and clarity of treble. The levels do suffer occasionally on the louder sounds, but this isn't especially noticeable.
What is a shame is that the audio is only available in stereo 2.0, with no 5.1 option.
The classical score is reproduced well though, and overall I don't have any major complaints above the stereo limitation.
There are a smallish handful of decent extras here. Most enjoyable is the interview with the endlessly charming Megumi Kagurazaka, a 40 minute slot with subtitles during which the actress (who also had a part in Cold Fish) answers questions about the filming process, and also talks about her early career as a gravure model.
Midnight Eye's editor Jasper Sharp goes solo to provide commentary for the film, and his laid-back style is engaging and relaxing. He also demonstrates effortless retrieval of knowledge surrounding Japanese film and culture, and is an expert on the work of Sion Sono, so his commentary is a welcome accompaniment to the film. I was especially interested to hear Sharp's discussion of Norwegian black metal act Mayhem, and how their church burning antics are to be woven into film by Sono. Note that despite his encyclopaedic knowledge, Sharp does finish off approximately 20 minutes early, which isn't bad going bearing in mind he performs the commentary alone, and that the film is rather long.
Finally, there's a Theatrical Trailer which should be enjoyed after viewing the film itself.
Sono rounds up the loosely titled 'Hate' trilogy with Guilty of Romance. His fans will delight in the visual assault of the senses, and the depiction of Japanese gender politics makes for absorbing viewing. Yet overall, there's a sense of incongruousness, and as the film progresses, events and themes become rather muddled. With a visual presentation that wavers at times, and a smattering of pleasant extras, Guilty of Romance will prove satisfactory for Sion Sono fans, but is unlikely to garner many new viewers.