Starring: Masumi Miyazaki, Issei Ishida, Rei Kuwana, Mai Takahashi, Fujiko, Tomorowo Tacuchi
Directed by: Sion Sono
Running Time: 83 minutes
After looking over a few reviews about this great Sion Sono classic, I decided that I wanted to add my input to the list of reviews. I heard many ramblings about Sono's most popular movie Suicide Circle (or "Suicide Club") and finally had the opportunity to watch it, but I'll save my comments on the movie for a later review. Later, I heard a friend of mine talk about another interesting movie called Strange Circus. I never heard of it until she told me about it and none of my other friends had heard of it either until I showed them the movie. Once I saw it on the shelves at Hasting's, before they decided to close down, I knew that I had to have it and hope that it was as good as it sounded. Perhaps even meet the creative standards of Sono's suicide trend movie...and it did! It actually became one of my favorite Asian thrillers and made me more curious about Sono's previous and future works. Now, I could just leave this review at that, but then it wouldn't be much of a review, would it?
Strange Circus tells the tale of a young girl named Mitsuko who seems to be living the normal life, until she sees her parents "making love". She soon runs away from the scene and her father, Gozo, builds a strange interest in his daughter. Confronting her in school, since her father is the principal, he makes sure to let her point out that he is a man and she is a woman. The story moves forward to horrifying thoughts of father/daughter incest and affects Mitsuko's thoughts on her relationship with both of her parents. Later, she is confined to a compact space of a cello case, provided by Gozo, and is forced to watch her parents "make love" through a peephole in the case. After repeated views, the mother Sayuri is oblivious to what is actually happening in her home, until she catches Gozo in the act with their daughter. Feeling that the time is right, Gozo later reveals that Mitsuko has been watching them "make love" through the case and decides to make Sayuri switch places with their daughter, forcing her to watch her husband "make love" to their child who felt an interchangeable connection to her mother. After these events have occurred, Sayuri suddenly becomes envious of Gozo and Mitsuko's relationship and tries to beat and nearly kill her daughter, until a tragic event happens involving an earring.
In the haze of Sayuri's funeral, Mitsuko begins associating herself as her mother, and living this great incestuous relationship with her father. Soon, we are revealed that this twisted tale is actually just a story written by a wheelchair bound author by the name of Taeko. A publishing company is gathered around the table to read the finish product, but a certain pretty face catches Taeko's attention and she ends up dismissing the rest of the men from her home as he interrogates her work. From there, we switch from the story that was written by the author and occasionally the metaphorical scenery of a "strange circus". Within these transitions, we tend to question which is reality, as the DVD box refers.
Strange Circus isn't your typical suspense movie that America normally puts out nowadays, this is definitely the type of movie that if you watch it over and over again, you'll discover something new each time. It's also the type of movie that if you can't handle twisted sexual acts, blood visuals, adoration of self-mutilation, abusive displays between a parent and their child, and a few other horrifying things you wouldn't expect from such a movie, then this might not be the movie for you, especially if you haven't been exposed to Sono's work and possible other directors who are experienced in this field of suspense movies. I would like to describe this movie as somewhat of a rollercoaster ride, at least that's how I felt when I first watched it. Watching this disturbing relationship that Gozo and Mitsuko had and anticipating the moment when Sayuri would find out that Gozo was forcing their child to watch them "make love" as well as repeat the same acts on her, then completely turning from this sorrowful feeling for both the mother and daughter to an upset emotion. You would think a mother would immediately leave her husband once she finds out that he has been having sex with their only child, but it is not the case in this movie. Jealousy builds up in Sayuri and she switches from this caring mother to an abusive one. Then you feel this sense of relief that this twisted story is just a story, until the movie proceeds forward and question which is a story and which is the truth. I think Sono did a spectacular job of balancing the two while using the "strange circus" scene as a metaphor for the happenings in the movie.
Also I think that Sono did a good job choosing actors to portray each character. After being away from the spotlight of the movie scene, Masumi Miyazaki did an amazing job becoming both the derange mother Sayuri and the unique writer Taeko while also going backwards and pretending to be Mitsuko's image of herself, after her mother's death. I thought it'd be quite challenging to switch off in such a wide range, but she did an amazing job of transitioning into all three characters. Also I would like to commend the actresses who had to perform the young Mitsuko and teenage Mitsuko in such a controversial, mature movie. While watching the making of the film, I noticed that they had to remove the younger actress out of certain scenes because of her age, but I wonder if she understands the full concept of what she had to put out there on the screen. Hiroshi Ohguchi had a difficult part of becoming the bastard father figure Gozo of the movie. I can't imagine anyone else playing that part as well as he did. Lastly, Issei Ishida had to go through a gradual character range throughout the whole movie without ruining an important piece of the movie to the viewer.
Aside from great casting choices and an intriguing storyline, Sono put a lot of effort in adding the perfect detail touches to the sets, costumes, and music. Not only do the characters pull us into the story, but the set compliments the mood of the character and script, such as the scene where Mitsuko enters her father's office and exits into an alternate world of red color oozing on the wall, a possible sign of corruption. Even though you might not notice the wardrobe choices of the main characters, the costumes of the circus participants stand out in your mind. From your hostess Madame Regine to the various performers, you can tell that Sono thought about all the details of each person's costumes and how they compliment each other as a whole. As for the music, Sono had specifically chosen certain themes to complete the atmosphere of the character's mood and the environment they're in, such as the classic piece involving light drumming, piano, and an accordion that is played throughout the movie and also by Taeko and the not so cliché circus theme sounds.
Overall, this is a movie you have to watch more than once and catch all the obvious hints and other little details of the environments used and the characters' behavior. The storyline is very unique from your typical American script as well as the slow pace of the whole film, but the speed is worth the untamed climax and the surprise ending. If you haven't seen it, you can probably find it for viewing online or renting it at your local rental store. But I must note that if you're sensitive to the subject of incest, suicide, abuse, and other themes mentioned in this review, I would go with your best judgment on viewing it.