A soundtrack flush with passages from Beethoven’s Symphony No. 7 and Ravel’s Bolero. A roving gang of martial-arts-trained up-skirt photographers. Boners aplenty. Sono Sion’s four-hour romantic epic Love Exposure has all that and much, much more, threading a genuinely touching story of young innocents through wild strokes of melodrama, religious kitsch, and assorted juvenilia. It’s a herky-jerky ride, devoting equal time to the Catholic dogma and the finer points of ninja-style up-skirt techniques, but Sion seems comfortable with shifting tones radically while the viewer hangs on for dear life. There’s a method to his madness, too, a calculated effort to contrast innocence and sin, the sacred and the profane, as the film’s would-be lovers are jettisoned from one extreme to another. Like all great l’amour fou movies, it feels more spontaneous and out of control than it actually is—what seems messy is really just grandiose.
Takahiro Nishijima plays the naïf hero, the pious son of a Catholic preacher (Atsurȏ Watabe) who watches his widower father lose his faith and moral authority after taking up with a foul seductress. In a bid to give his father some of that moral authority back, Nishijima resolves to start committing egregious sins, which leads him into the stealth world of up-skirt photography. Despite being a teenager with now-bountiful access to photos of schoolgirls in their underwear, nothing turns Nishijima on until he meets Hikari Mitsushima, a girl whose relationship with a sexually abusive father has led her to hate (and attack) all men not named Kurt Cobain. (She only loves him when he’s in a drag as “The Scorpion,” a reference to the 1972 Japanese exploitation classic Female Convict Scorpion: Jailhouse 41.) The chaos agent in this scenario is Sakura Andȏ, a demented young woman who schemes to drive everyone into a religious cult called the “Zero Church.”
In form and content, Love Exposure summons the Japanese youth films of the ’60s and ’70s, when directors like Nagisa Ȏshima (Cruel Story Of Youth) and Kinji Fukasaku (Blackmail Is My Life) attempted to express the recklessness and rebellion of the younger generation through a fast, aggressive, radical style. As demented as it gets, though, the film unfolds in distinct movements, starting with a breathless rush of events before the (hilariously delayed) credits then settling into melodrama, and, finally, going inside the cult in a final act that resembles the second half of Todd Haynes’ Safe. Sion offers up a lot to process—some of it silly, perhaps, but some of it thoughtful about the quest for spiritual meaning, and all of it endearingly romantic. And at four hours, the obstacles to young love are so relentless and imposing that just getting through the journey yields an emotional high.
Key features: None.