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  Strange Circus Her Life StoriesBuy this film here.
Year: 2005
Director: Sion Sono
Stars: Masumi Miyazaki, Issei Ishida, Rie Kuwana, Mai Takahashi, Fujiko, Madamu Rejînu, Mame Yamada, Pyûpiru, Erika Mine, Keiko Yokomachi, Tsutomu Ihara, Rinco, Sachiko Yamagishi, Ken Sasaki, Mitsuhiko Watanabe, Yûi Aoya, Risa Yujie, Arisa Yura, Yuki Urabe
Genre: Horror, Drama, Weirdo
Rating:  6 (from 1 vote)
Review: We are in a dream, where the circus is about to commence, introduced by the ringmaster - or are they a ringmistress? - who announces to the assembled crowd that there will be an execution tonight as part of the show, so they bring on the guillotine and ask a volunteer to step up on the stage and have their head chopped off. Twelve-year-old Mitsuko does so, but just as she does she wakes up, it was only a nightmare. However, her waking life is a nightmare as well, for her father is the headmaster of her school and also the man who has started raping her recently in harrowing sex games he previously played with his wife Sayuri (Masumi Miyazaki), and she has grown insane with the thought about her daughter being abused, so abuses her too...

As you can tell from that introduction, writer and director Sion Sono set out to disturb with this tale of a seriously dysfunctional family, yet one which he continually calls into question over the course of the film, to the extent that by the end we cannot be sure how much of the plot was supposed to be fantasy and how much was actually happening. In spite of the first twenty minutes, don't go expecting an insight into child abuse here, for Sono was using that as a device to inquire into themes of what makes us what we are, and how what we believe ourselves to be diverges from the reality, so the details Mitsuko shares with us about her awful upbringing may be a tissue of lies all designed to substitute for a life she wanted to live as a victim.

A professional victim, at that, which brings us to some very murky places, as we see her grown up and taking the name Taeko, also played by Miyazaki, informing us what we have watched up to that point with all its dreadful events has been her novel. Along with a pondering on whether creative types who manufacture characters just to put them through absolute hell is a healthy way to go about writing books or films, Sono appeared to be throwing memory into the mix of things we cannot trust, be that our own or other people's, and naturally the trouble with that is we as an audience can only have the rug pulled from under us so many times before it loses its effect.

This would explain why Sono conjured up each twist to render them more preposterous than the last, so that we are never in anything remotely resembling the real world as most of us would recognise it, be that Japanese or anywhere else on the globe. He claimed this was his tribute to Federico Fellini, and it assuredly had that style, but to the point of using uninspired motifs like the circus complete with quirky accordion music (composed by the director) that were ill-matched with the more uneasy elements, though of course that could have been the general idea. As often with this talent, he was so dedicated to arresting the audience's sensibilities that he would go too far; naturally there would be some offended by the premise and they would be advised to avoid it, but there were other drawbacks.

When we see Taeko uses a wheelchair after attempting suicide as a girl, it's difficult not to think of the Little Britain sketches with Lou and Andy when she reveals she can actually walk, and has just pretended to be disabled to make herself more interesting; laugh if you want, but it leaves a discomfited feeling when practically every scene in the movie takes the form of that sort of reveal, no matter how surreal the circumstances. By the time we reach the finale, the narrative has squirmed down so many rabbit holes that you may well be wondering why you were taking it seriously, or indeed if you were asked to take it seriously anyway - it's not playful, exactly, as something so relentlessly sick isn't light entertainment, but it is capricious to the point of pointlessness. With the tone diving into horror in places, that's what informs the rest of it, as every major character sees the ground shifting under them regarding precisely who they are supposed to be, leaving them as baffled as we are. Strange Circus was certainly an experience, but its provocation could have been more keenly delivered among this muddle.
Reviewer: Graeme Clark

 

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