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HKIFF 2009: Comedy Trumps Religion, But Humanity Wins Out Over All

Above: Sono Sion's Love Exposure.

Two incidents in a friend’s life inspired Sono Sion to make Love Exposure, according to the Hong Kong International Film Festival catalogue.  The first was in the world of porn, while the other had to do with a religious cult, but in his exquisitely layered satire of religion, Sono takes a long time getting from the former to the latter, taking us on all kinds of exotic detours on the way. Similarly, I’m going to meander through several movies, in order to get at what I like about Sono’s work:  I saw several good comedies beforehand in Hong Kong, but seeing Love Exposure crystallized a few intuitions about cinema and comedy that were forming as I watched the other movies.

One docu-comedy—also about religion—which I didn’t like was Religulous, but it serves to underline the excellence of Sono’s satire by contrast. The “believers” Bill Maher interviews in Religulous range from being quite sincere to obvious hypocrites—some are humorless, while others don’t take themselves too seriously—but Maher, a stand-up comic who hates religion, goes through the film picking on everyone. The lowest point of Maher’s “documentary” comes after a “Jesus Christ” in a cheesy theme park comes up with a surprisingly good metaphor to back up the notion of the Trinity:  "It's the same God, but it's like water, ice and steam:  all the same, but coming in different forms." Here, Maher is at a loss:  who would have expected a theme-park employee to come up with such a clever answer? Maher has to cheat and intercut a rebuttal later, because he is obviously someone who always has to have the last word.

I won’t belabor Maher’s faults, except in order to get at what I like about Love Exposure, as well as to make a disclaimer that its atheism has little to do with my objections to Maher’s film. I’m a fan, for example, of Dan Dennett’s deconstruction of religion, Breaking the Spell, but even my old professor concedes, “Religion can certainly bring out the best in people.” But also the worst, which is why Sono’s takedown of religion is so engaging:  the premise is something like “here are the odd beliefs my characters adopt and look at the difficult positions these beliefs put them in.” Sono’s is a subjective world, in which his characters can, up to a point, choose their own reality, but the test that most of his characters fail— the ultimate test of that reality—is their ability to be happy in what they create for themselves.

Above: Sono Sion's Love Exposure.

Honda Yu’s father is a priest in denial about his own runaway sexuality, which makes it all the easier for his female “parishioners” to manipulate him. His father’s alternate callous disregard and moral persecution make Yu “a little bit crazy,” as his gangster pals put it. Why the gangster pals? Because, after having invented “sins” to satisfy his father in the confession booth—the real ones he committed weren’t sufficient—Yu eventually weaves these lies into his own upside-down religion of sin, and then gathers a coterie of smalltime “evildoers” around him.

There is a trope in post-Meiji Japanese literature and culture—novelist Shusaku Endo comes to mind—that obsesses over the paraphernalia of Western religion and culture: rosaries, crosses, and especially “inspirational” classical music: Yu’s dead mother appears to him in his dreams as an alabaster Virgin Mary. When he gathers his courage to achieve the goals she sets for him, the second movement from Beethoven’s 7th plays. Then there is his true love, the feisty Yoko, whom he meets during a kung fu fight with a rival gang, and refers to as “My Maria.” Unfortunately, in a twist out of Cyrano de Bergerac, he’s doing a female impersonation at the time, costumed from head to toe in black as “The Scorpion.”  Yoko hates men, but she returns Yu’s love when he appears to Yoko in the guise of this heroine.

Love Exposure has an aspect, one full of chance coincidences and misunderstandings, not only similar to stage comedy, but even to some of the more traditional films shown at HKIFF.  The earlier of the two Evan Yang films I saw at the film archive’s retro, The Beautiful and the Dumb (1954), employs mistaken identity just as Love Exposure does. The central misunderstanding, though, relies on the girl’s handicap:  the hero thinks the mute girl is shy and yielding, but, once a miraculous operation restores the beauty’s ability to speak, he finds out that the battle of the sexes is not so simply won.

Above: Evan Yang's Spring Song.

Another Evan Yang movie, Spring Song (1959), also relies on the same ancient tricks, handed down from the comedies of Plautus (and whatever Chinese equivalents), although the mood is more American:  Betty-and-Veronica-style teen culture. The most important update, though, is that while the earlier film looks like a play, the camera in this later movie now moves, giving greater scope for visual gags. In one scene, choreographed in parallel, the two lead actresses studiously ignore their respective guys. This sequence had such visual appeal that it became the basis for Spring Song’s advertising poster (but in the poster the girls are truly beating their men up, rather than engaging in mere psychological warfare.)

Short of going to Love Exposure’s baroque, zany lengths, though, it was My Dear Enemy, a Korean film, which breathed the most freshness into the ancient tale of boy-woos-girl. Although billed as a “road movie” in the HKIFF catalogue—because boy and girl are figuratively tied at the hip while he is trying to recoup the money he owes her—the couple never actually leaves Seoul. In truth, this is a traditional romantic comedy turned upside-down in that dark Korean way—the boy doesnt get the girl in the end.

The couple are each afraid to let the other out of sight for long—although each for different reasons—so one of the most ancient ploys in romantic comedy, the departure of the beloved, can’t be used to give dramatic effect and delimit the “acts” of stagier movies like Evan Yang comedies. So the film’s punctuation is that of a road movie:  the comedic scenes are interspersed with quite a lot of driving all over the city, incorporating the bits of scenery and incidental, roadside reality characteristic of that genre.

Love Exposure, on the other hand, has much more than merely one other genre mixed in with the romantic comedy. One reviewer called it a blend of "comedy, action, romance, tear-jerking melodrama, character study, family drama and social commentary, so it [was] firing from all cylinders, aiming to generate all kinds of emotions from audiences." The complexity comes from the director’s trying to creatively fill in the blanks between the two incidents in the life of Sono’s friend that I mentioned at the outset. Just like Yu, he became a star photographer in the peek-a-panty photo world, but then, according to Sono, this friend’s younger sister was brainwashed into a religious cult, so he dropped everything in order to find his sister: "I convinced her to come back to this world,” the friend bragged to Sono, “and I won her back!”

By triangulating between the obsessive world of Japanese porn and religious cults like Aum Shinri-kyo, Sono has managed a great spoof of Catholicism—particularly its the contradictions and crypto-sexual elements—precisely because that wasn’t his prime goal:  established religion was merely a way-station to propel the plot onwards towards the theme of extreme cults. And nothing in Catholicism is nearly as sinister as Koike’s cult church:  the final part of the movie therefore shifts into a heavier—if no less ironic—mood. Aya Koike is Yu’s nemesis, and she has been carefully pulling strings in the background in order to indoctrinate Yu’s entire family into her “Zero Church”, and take away Yoko, “his Maria”, from him in the process. (To distance itself from the Tokyo subway murders, the Aum Shinri-kyo renamed itself “Aleph”:  Sono’s name for his cult alludes to the fact that this first letter doubles as the Hebrew first numeral.) The price that Sono has paid for the Zero Church’s late arrival into the film is the sheer length of the film—237 minutes—and the complexity of its plot. But Sono’s skillful pacing is such that the audience barely notices either.

Above: Albert Serra's Birdsong.

If Sono makes the fast pace of Love Exposure a virtue, Albert Serra’s Birdsong, also about religion, takes the opposite tack, moving at an intentionally slow pace. This is a retelling of the journey of the Magi to bless the infant Christ AND. . .(uh). . their journey back. Like Sono’s film, it is a combination of opposites, with the austerity of a Dreyer or Bresson film, but (like Bresson’s Au hasard Balthazar, perhaps?) also incorporating a barely concealed comic vein. The hymns tell us that the holy family is "full of grace", but in Birdsong they seem to be nothing special. The contrast between the severe, "spiritual" landscape Serra depicts and his slightly ridiculous kings is interesting enough without any definite interpretation, and anyway, the film projects a subtle warmth and humanism quite apart from the religious story.

Are these movies telling us that there are new ways to examine religion, or to do comedy, or both? Perhaps, just as we need new, more inventive ways to laugh, we also need creative ways to “throw cold water” on our primal, superstitious urges. On the other hand, we always return to the eternal themes:  for all of its innovation, there are plenty of old-fashioned bits in Love Exposure. The last, Sistine Chapel-like image, of Yu and Yoko’s fingers joining, leaves only the slightest doubt that their fates will be entwined and that Yu will, indeed, get his Maria.

i love the title of this review. and it is so well written. i am excited to watch all three films. speaking of “Zero Church” : that is an interesting fact about Aleph of the Hebrew alphabet. incidentally, aleph, mem shin (air, water, fire) – the three primordial elements that formed the earth according to the Kabbalah. a good book on the Aum Shinri-kyo Tokyo subway bombings is ‘Underground’ by Haruki Murakami. there is also some amazing real-life footage of these events that can be found on…uh…youtube.
That first image might be the greatest film still I’ve ever seen.
Of course I meant : the Aum Shinri-kyo gas-attacks, not bombings. :)

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