Review by: Topo Sanchez
SCUM Rating: ★ ★ ★ ★ ☆
At SCUM Cinema, we have always been great fans of Sion Sono (Cold Fish, Suicide Club, Guilty of Romance, and most recently a film we reviewed, The Land of Hope). This week, I have decided to review his 2005 masterpiece, Strange Circus.
I find this film rather tricky to review, because the story is heavily coated with layers upon layers of twists and turns, and fluctuates between the past and present, reality and fantasy. Its the kind of movie where you’d probably pick up something new each time you watch it again. So I hope I have managed to soak up enough of the plot to give a decent review, since this is only my second time watching it. Here goes…
The first half of the story shows Mitsuko, a 12 year-old girl who is sexually abused and raped by her father after accidentally walking into her parents’ room while they were having sex. To make things worse, her abusive father is her school principal as well. Daddy likes to lock Mitsuko in a cello case, and makes her watch him make love to mommy through a small peephole. One day, Mommy walks into the bedroom while Daddy is ravaging Mitsuko, but instead of coming to her aid, Mommy becomes jealous of daughter, looking at her as competition for Daddy’s love. So Mommy starts to get abusive, beating on daughter each time Daddy is not home.
During one of the beatings, Mommy accuses Mitsuko of stealing her earring, and a scuffle ensues. Mitsuko accidentally pushes Mommy down the stairs, where she suffers a blow to her head and dies. To ease her guilt, Mitsuko transforms herself into a replacement for Mommy, and readily accepts Daddy’s abuse as punishment. But soon, the constant abuse and her failing school grades take their toll, and Mitsuko decides to jump off the school building to end it all. Fortunately or unfortunately, she survives the fall but ends up paralyzed from the waist down, and thus dependent on a wheelchair.
From here on the story takes on its first ‘turn’. We soon learn that what has just transpired is actually a scene from the latest story by a famous novelist named Taeko, who happens to be wheelchair-bound herself. As the publisher is concerned with her deadline, they send down one of their staff, Yuji, to assist her. Yuji suspects the story could be an autobiography and sets out to investigate if Taeko is indeed a grown-up Mitsuko in reality. Taeko and Yuji spend some time getting to know each other and a friendship develops.
Towards the last third of the film, a second ‘turn’ takes place, and the story shifts into an overdrive of violent twists and shocking revelations. Think chainsaws, body parts and lots of blood. I will not spoil the film for you, but I can assure you that the ending is quite original and interesting. Who Is Taeko really? Who is Yuji and how does he know so much about Taeko? What happened to Daddy? Which is reality and which is fantasy?
You would think that such a plot would be too ambitious an attempt to translate onto film, but I must say that Sion Sono did a mighty fine job. Not only was he sensitive to the little nuances of the set design and cinematography, he also succeeded in articulating a difficult and sensitive subject like child sexual abuse without making it feel like a cheap exploitative gimmick. Since Mitsuko took it upon herself to be her mom’s replacement in the story, Sono expertly made full use of this script by cutting to Mommy’s face / body each time the 12 year-old Mitsuko is in a compromising position. So he is actually protecting the child actress while at the same reinforcing the concept of Mitsuko’s dual identity to the audience. Nice!
The set is pretty amazing too. Whenever Mitsuko survives an ordeal, the walls in the house becomes covered with blood red gooey stuff, as if to show her walking out from the belly of a monstrous beast. Or maybe its also to show her trapped in it? I guess the circus in the title could be referring to the state of mind of Mitsuko, or perhaps its referring to the madness of the family environment that she is growing up in, or maybe the whole movie plot is a circus show. You decide, really.
And that’s the magic of Strange Circus. Nobody can be truly right or wrong in their interpretations, but you can be assured that everyone will be talking about it after the film and thinking about it for many more days to come. So step right up and let the ringmaster begin the show!