Wednesday, December 31, 2008

8 Hours of Power: Steven Soderbergh's CHE and Sion Sono's LOVE EXPOSURE

Taking the time out to view a 4-hour movie certainly requires a real commitment beyond that of time, because it also requires you to psyche yourself up, to prep for taking in four hours of story, characterization, themes, and ideas that could prove a bit much by film’s end. Heaven forbid that the film itself sucks, too, because on top of everything you’re going to feel like it’s been time wasted watching “that” other than wasting your time doing something else. But when films reach a truly epic length one often feels that it’s almost a safe bet, because despite the time, if a filmmaker is going to spend four hours (or more, if possible) telling a story, then that story must truly be something special. GONE WITH THE WIND is one of the most obvious examples (though it comes in under 4 hours), because audiences not only accepted the film’s length before they ever sat down, they also respected it, because the story was that big. Granted, not everyone would be into such a thing, but true cinema lovers would relish the opportunity to take in some kind of 4-hour epic if they felt it was worth their while (and the reviews are good). Being one step head and above of most film aficionados (don’t feel so bad, it just comes naturally), I took the time to do this twice in the space of a week, and I couldn’t find two more dissimilar films to do it with than Steven Soderbergh’s CHE, about the famed South American revolutionary and college dorm room fixture, and Sion Sono’s LOVE EXPOSURE, which is about the importance of sinning and mastering the art of the upskirt photograph, among many other things. I did not say that there was any logic to these choices, other than the fact that I simply wanted to see them both. Needless to say, I don’t really possess much logic to begin with.

Soderbergh’s CHE (which is currently screening in its complete form in NYC, L.A., and in the living rooms of Academy members and other screener participants, before being split into two seperate features) was the closing feature of Harry Knowles’ annual Butt-Numb-A-Thon 24-hour movie marathon, and the general conscientious was that it was a bad call to make that the closer. Even though the BNAT crowd are indeed die hard movie lovers, programming CHE – about as non-mainstream a film as you’re going to get these days – after 20 hours of films like MY BLOODY VALENTINE 3-D and I LOVE YOU, MAN – was simply off-base. That said, it also take a real die hard film lover to still appreciate CHE after all that, and on that simple account, some of us emerged victorious, myself included (hooray for me!). Having had not very much knowledge of the events of the Cuban revolution (other than what I saw in THE GODFATHER, PART II), I can’t really judge CHE for its historical accuracy or for its passion for the subject matter, I can only judge it as a piece of cinema, and on that respect alone I give it high marks. Soderbergh doesn’t seem to be too interested in telling the story of the Cuban revolution so much how one man’s belief in a cause can shape the world, and that he makes it compelling for just over four hours is very much to his credit. Like its protagonist, CHE is full of drive and passion, if only to present a portion of this important part of world history, so if you get lost by who’s who and what’s what (like I’ll confess I did), you can still admire it solely on an aesthetic level, like I’ll confess I did, as well. While watching the film I remember that Terrence Malick was once slated to direct, and suddenly it occurred to me that while Soderbergh wasn’t quite out to make a Malick film, he’s used that style to document these events, especially in the second half (due to be released as GUERRILLA), giving the events depicted a serine, but still lifelike, feel. And taking the film out of the context of “history” and simply making it a “you are there” style also makes it more compelling for ijuts like me, because I feel the need to fill in the gaps of the story and go back to it at some point. Can it feel slow and confusing? Yes, but if that’s the case then the problem is probably more me than the film itself, but my interest is certainly piqued and I’m eager to learn more. But I do know that Soderbergh, as uneven as he can be at times, is unquestionably one of the more challenging filmmakers working in the U.S. these days, and after CHE, my respect for him grows more and more.

So while CHE is unquestionably a serious intellectual enterprise, Sion Sono’s LOVE EXPOSURE may seem incredibly silly, even infantile, by comparison, but that’s definitely not the case. Sono, like Soderbergh, has been an extremely erratic filmmaker for me (I rather enjoyed EXTE: HAIR EXTENSIONS, but walked out of STRANGE CIRCUS at the 2006 Fantasia Film Festival, awkwardly bumping into Sono in the lobby as I did), but there’s no question that he’s struck movie gold with LOVE EXPOSURE, a picture that could quite possibly become the reigning cult film of 2009. This is a picture with a hell of a lot going on and a lot on both its heart and mind, so it can’t quite carry its own weight for the entire time (it drags a bit in the final hour), but it packs in so damn much and does it with admirable heart and drive (not unlike CHE) that one it tempted to rate it higher than they might have otherwise. Yet, it’s so admirable that Sono pulls off so much of it so well, that you just want to say, “What the hell” and set up your own distribution company just to make sure this puppy gets seen. What I particularly like about LOVE EXPOSURE is how it rather successfully jumps around genres for those four hours – it’s equal parts silly comedy, meditation on religious beliefs, and a testament to the power of love – but never feels disjointed. LOVE EXPOSURE is the story of Yu (played by Japanese pop star Takahiro Nishijima), who grows up in a devoutly religious (and happy) household. After his mother’s death, his father enters the priesthood, but is lured away years later when he falls in love with a parishioner. After she leaves him, Yu’s father becomes despondent, urging his son to confess his sins and refusing to believe him when Yu tells him that there are none. Yu soon realizes that the only way to please –and possibly save – his father is to begin sinning, which he does expertly. And if you think I’m telling you too much, don’t worry, because I pretty much just described only the opening 30 minutes or so. Needless to say, there’s a lot more, and you soon realize that the 4-hour running time is pretty much justified.

I’m sure that many legit critics will look at LOVE EXPOSURE as nothing more than a cult item, which I suppose it will be, but as a cult items there’s no question it’s more ambitious than many other pictures out there these days. This is a wild and alive film, heartfelt but also giddy insane and reckless; all over the map but also surprisingly restrained. It’s densely packed, but not jammed with so many ideas that it confuses or alienates its audience, and I’m really in awe of it right now. Is it art? Is it something for the intellectuals, like CHE? Probably not (though I’d sure like it if it did get embraced in such a way), but I have no doubt that it’s going to find an audience. I have no idea if it’s ever going to get any kind of release here (it opens in Japan on January 31), but it’s sure to be hot shit on the festival circuit (I know of one festival I’m pushing for it to play at), and with any hope some brave soul will pick it up here. I certainly hope so, because I have a very strong feeling I’m going to discussing it again this time next year. 2009 already has one film in its cannon that’s going to be hard to top. Four hours or not, we need more movies like LOVE EXPOSURE.



Craig said...

Thanks for this. I'd been dejected by the spate of negative reviews for "Che," but you've got me looking forward to the movie again. I also likely never would have heard of "Love Exposure," but you've got me interested in that too.

1minutefilmreview said...

'Love Exposure' sounds interesting.

power_pod said...

I have seen both and they are both brilliant in their own way. Love Exposure was brilliant and I am going to see it again tomorrow. I think it should taken s a very serious film because I think it is ilustrating strong and deep ideas even in moments of supposed vulgarity (his ability to get an erection when he meets his true love).