No doubt that Love Exposure [Ai no Mukidashi] will become Sion Sono's ultimate masterpiece. The movie every film critic will refer to when his name is mentioned. And even though Love Exposure is not my favorite Sono film, it's not difficult to see why so many people are championing this film as his best. It's a true epic 4 hour long journey through a world that simply breathes Sono's unique style.
Holy fuck ... never before have there been two small words so aptly describing a film. 'Holy' because Sono's films are always rampant with religious themes, though nowhere as deep-running as here. 'Fuck' because there is a lot of sexual content, though never explicit. And 'Holy fuck' because in these 4 hours Sono inserts so much material working together that it defies every law of cinema. Love Exposure is such a mess that by all means it shouldn't be allowed work as a film. But it the end it simply does.
Sion Sono (Suicide Circle, Strange Circus, Noriko's Dinner Table, Ekusute) is building himself quite a reputation. His films are often a mix of religious themes (sects mostly), in-your-face extremities and absurd humor. The combination of these element can be a little uneven but the final result is always interesting and unique. Love Exposure sees Sono taking it one step further, cramming everything he's got into an epic 240 minute film. I guess he just needed to get something off his chest.
Capturing the storyline in one measly paragraph is near impossible so I won't even bother, but at the core of this film lies a very simple love triangle. Yu is a young boy oppressed by his father turned priest, Koike is the leader of a Zero Church fraction looking for new recruits and Yoko is a young girl with a big aversion of men (caused by traumatizing events in the past). The three of them meet up and get entangled in a seriously twisted tale of trust and love.
240 minutes is a lot of film to fill, especially when you're not willing to spent a couple of years slaving away to get it all perfect. Sono's choice for DV is a logical one and although it results in some lesser-quality images the agile camera work and versatile shot angles make up for that. Overall the film has a pleasant enough look and the editing ensures decent pacing. Some scenes are a little drawn out but only when they are supposed carry the dramatic impact of the film.
The soundtrack is pretty cool, resembling Battle Royale in the sense that Sono uses popular classical tunes in a modern, atypical setting to create an unsettling effect. It works well and lends an extra comedic effect to certain scenes while at the same time enhancing the dramatic effect in others. Some people might be put off by this use of classical tunes (see Battle Royale again) but I must say that I quite liked Sono's choice of music.
The acting is overall strong, though some of the young leads do fall through in certain scenes. Nishijima and Mitsushima have some trouble with the more comedic parts, Ando is the only one to deliver a strong performance all the way through. What's more important is that all actors are able to convince in the dramatic scenes, ensuring that whatever punch is dealt hits the mark.
Even though Love Exposure is an extremely long film the pacing is surprisingly fast. Because of that, some parts still manage to come off as a little underdeveloped, especially for a film of this magnitude. While Sono does his best to fit all the elements within the timespan of his film he can't help but wander a little in some parts. This results in a couple of superb scenes (like the camera training) that keep the film going but fail to bring any relevance to the core story. A decision I actually support as it makes the film a whole lot more accessible though I'm sure not everyone will agree.
Love Exposure is a film that has almost everything. There's cult, comedy, romance, drama and even a dash of horror. The third hour is a little slower compared to rest of the film because that's where the dramatic angle starts to take form. The first two hours are mostly dominated by a comedic undercurrent keeping the film light and playful, while the final hour deals most of the punches and creates a great payoff for the drama build-up during the third hour. It leaves its audience a little dazzled, somehow unsure of what they have just witnessed.
One small thing though. If you read all the rave reviews, know that people are prone to rate longer films a little higher just because they manage to keep them entertained for such a long time. It is indeed a feat if you can keep people interested for 4 hours in a row, but I myself prefer shorter films that pack more punch in a shorter timespan. There's no doubt that Love Exposure is a superb film with plenty to offer. Absurd comedy mixed with tense drama give this film a nice edge, but even though I was never bored, even for a second, and always eager to keep on watching Sono's film lacks a finishing touch to make it truly great.
Don't let that hold you back though. Love Exposure is a great experience, offering lots of weirdness, fun and shock while never boring its audience. It's a true author's film, perfectly illustrating the different styles and themes so prevalent in Sono's cinema. The fact that it works as a film is a small miracle, that it knows to immerse you for a full 4 hours is almost insane. That said, I've seen better films that packed more punch in only a quarter of the running time. With that said, it still comes highly recommended.