Monday, September 21, 2015

Sweet Whip (2013)

AKA Sweet Obsession

Takashi Ishii’s adaptation of Oniroku Dan’s S&M novel Flower and Snake (2004) marked a kind of turning point in the Japanese maverick auteur’s cinematic career. While sadomasochism was clearly a topic that has always interested Ishii, with Flower and Snake S&M came to the forefront and for the majority of Ishii’s output ever since S&M has became a favored topic with each film becoming more obsessive and fetishistic and all the more fascinating as a result. This has naturally polarized audiences with many dismissing his recent output as overlong and indulgent. Ishii followed up Flower and Snake with a sequel which further explored the psychology behind sadomasochistic fantasies as well as the role S&M played in marriage. While Ishii’s next film, The Brutal Hopelessness of Love (2007) wasn’t specifically about S&M, the masochism of its main protagonist was ever apparent and was a major piece of the films psychological puzzle. In A Night in Nude: Salvation (2010), Ishii’s sequel to his A Night in Nude (1993), in what has gone on to become the films most notorious scene and a deal breaker for many viewers, a character repeatedly whips herself for an extended length of time. Much like Flower and Snake, for 2013’s Sweet Whip Ishii again turned to a book for source material and completely made it his own resulting in one of his most potent and potentially alienating sadomasochistic masterpieces yet.  

Naoko (Yuki Mamiya), a 17 year old high school student is kidnapped by her neighbor who has harbored a long obsession with her. For one month, Naoko is repeatedly raped and tortured before managing to kill her captor and escape. 14 years later, 31 year old Naoko (Mitsu Dan) is now a successful doctor specializing in fertility however she also has a hidden side, working nights as a professional slave in an S&M club under the name Serika. With the impending death of her terminally ill mother, Naoko’s painful memories of her ordeal as a teenager begin haunting her worse than ever and dangerously bleed into the fantasy scenarios at the S&M club.

Kei Ohishi's book which the film is based on.
Unquestionably Ishii’s darkest film to date, Sweet Whip (Amai Muchi, 甘い鞭) could be seen as the culmination of everything Ishii has explored in his output for the past decade. While the exploration of a damaged female psyche is something Ishii has returned to several times going all the way back to the Angel Guts series, never before has he taken it this far and in such bleak directions. What’s really astonishing is that despite how dark a film this is, and it really cannot be overstated just how grim it gets, Ishii has always taken the side of his female protagonists and Sweet Whip is no different ultimately making Ishii’s portrait of Naoko sensitive and sympathetic, yet Ishii’s handling of such material is still bound to infuriate a plethora of viewers. Ishii structures the film in an interesting way by having Naoko’s abuse as a teen detailed via flashbacks, constantly going back and forth between the past and present as well as utilizing voice over narration throughout the entire film. The more the film moves forward, the more Naoko’s narration reveals about her current mindset and the build-up to the films climax is nothing short of masterful with the flashbacks to Naoko’s final moments of captivity before her escape corresponding with the older Naoko at the S&M club. The violently surreal finale, where Ishii presents Naoko’s distorted viewpoint, along with the fragile beauty of Mitsu Dan and brilliant use of Brahms strike an emotional chord rivaled only by The Brutal Hopelessness of Love.

Its crucial to point out that never once does Ishii eroticize Naoko’s past torments, setting those scenes in a repulsive looking basement room and presenting her captor as the most pathetic creature imaginable. Its during the stylish scenes taking place at the S&M club where the older Naoko is willingly tied up and whipped does the film cross over into the erotic territory visually while the psychology behind those scenes and Naoko’s motivations are sure to draw the ire of overly sensitive knee-jerk reactionaries. What’s also worth noting is leading actress Mitsu Dan is currently one of the biggest celebrity sex symbols, or “idols” in Japan. It should be safe to assume that the number of western actresses with the same amount of fame as Dan that would be willing to take a role like this could be counted on one hand. Dan follows in the footsteps of Aya Sugimoto and Mai Kitajima, turning in a psychical performance that puts most other so called “brave” performances to shame. The same could be said for Yuki Mamiya, Dan’s 17 year old counterpart in the film and another “idol” who goes through hell for the film. The fact that there are mavericks like Ishii still making audacious and uncompromising films like Sweet Whip and performers like Dan taking on roles like this is a good enough reason not to completely give up on modern cinema.

Monday, September 7, 2015

The Brutal Hopelessness of Love (2007)

When done right, the “film within a film” device can lead to a number of innovative possibilities. Not simply as a way of telling multiple stories, but it also gives performers the chance to really stretch their acting muscles by tackling more than one personality. Its no surprise that some of the finest examples of film within a film have came from the master transgressors. With Trans-Europ-Express (1967), Alain Robbe-Grillet presented a compelling and kinky story as it was being made up on the spot while the director, writer and producer travel on the titular railway. Andrzej Zulawski’s La femme publique (1984) explored the chaos that can ensue on a film set, the lead actress becoming “possessed”, so to speak, by the director, and the confusion between actress and character. This idea was taken to its most (il)logical extreme by David Lynch in Inland Empire (2006) where lead actress Laura Dern’s world becomes a surreal nightmare after having the personality of the character she’s playing become dominant. Fresh off his groundbreaking adaptation of Flower and Snake (2004) and its 2005 sequel, Takashi Ishii, a master transgressor if there ever was one, tried his hand at the film within a film game with The Brutal Hopelessness of Love, a staggeringly brilliant psychological puzzle film that not only stands as one of Ishii’s greatest films, but one of the best films from the past decade.      

Nami Tsuchiya (Mai Kitajima), a famous actress is being interviewed by journalist Katsuragi (Naoto Takenaka) on the set of her new film. In the film, Nami plays an actress named Kyoko who’s husband is having an affair with a younger actress. The films storyline mirrors Nami’s real life marriage as her husband has been having a well publicized affair with another actress and it just so happens that Nami’s actual husband is playing her fictional husband in the film and his real mistress is playing the mistress role. The more Nami goes into detail about the film, the more names and events become muddled as the lines between reality and film gradually become more obscured.  

Although it shares similarities with the previously mentioned films, by no means is The Brutal Hopelessness of Love (Hito ga hito o ai suru koto no dôshiyô mo nasa, 人が人を愛することのどうしようもなさ) a rehash. This is quintessential Ishii, a bizarre, erotic, fetishistic, at times blackly humorous, ultimately tragic character study of Ishii’s most fascinating variation on the Nami character yet. One of the most clever uses of film within a film, by having the film revolve around an interview it allows Ishii to constantly return to Nami recounting the details of her new film, yet the more the film moves forward it also raises the question of who exactly is Nami speaking for? Herself, the fictional Kyoko or perhaps the character Kyoko is playing? Never becoming too convoluted, the way Ishii ties it all together in the end is again, clever but the emotional impact hits harder here than in any of Ishii’s previous films thanks to the presence and performance of Mai Kitajima. While not as psychically demanding a role as Aya Sugimoto’s in the Flower and Snake films, Kitajimi nonetheless hurls herself in the role(s) with abandon, really going the extra mile. Instantly likable and unbelievably beautiful, Kitajima exudes Nami’s eroticism but also the air of sadness that surrounds her, making the films final reveal all the more potent. As is expected the film is also visually astounding featuring some of Ishii’s most extravagant neon lighting to date giving the film a feeling of surreality which perfectly compliments the films multiple personality narrative.

In February of 2014 there was somewhat of an instance of life imitating art in terms of personal marital issues becoming public when in an attention seeking attempt, Mai Kitajima’s ex-husband, actor and former J-Pop idol Mikio Osawa held a press conference claiming that a DNA test proved that he wasn’t the biological father of the former couples son. The insinuation obviously being that Kitajima had an affair during their engagement. Needless to say the tabloids ran with it and Kitajima’s name was dragged through the mud pretty badly. The couple officially divorced in 2005, two years before this film was made and it wouldn’t be the least bit surprising if taking on a role like this was cathartic in a way for Kitajima. It certainly feels that way watching her performance. This film also marked Naoto Takenaka’s eighth appearance in an Ishii film out of a total of eleven so far. Takenaka has been with Ishii from the beginning staring in Ishii’s debut Angel Guts: Red Vertigo (1988) and has been a go-to actor for Ishii ever sense with some of his most memorable Ishii roles being in A Night In Nude (1993), Gonin (1995) and Freeze Me (2000). Phenomenal actor, but this film is all Kitajima. Its her go for broke performance that carries the film and combined with Ishii’s masterful visuals make The Brutal Hopelessness of Love a certifiable masterpiece.