Guilty Of Romance

Guilty Of Romance


Reviewed by: Owen Van Spall

Poet, novelist and notorious filmmaker Sion Sono completes his 'Hate Trilogy' with Guilty Of Romance, following on from Love Exposure and Cold Fish. Guilty of Romance shares more DNA with the grittier Cold Fish than the more exuberant, brighter Love Exposure as both are on the surface crime noir pictures. But the director's trademark vivid cinematography and willingness to explore extremes in tone and content are present and correct here and make Guilty Of Romance as much a frustrating and intensely riveting viewing experience as his other creations.

Sex, death, madness - Sono takes them all on with abandon, as if to taunt us that love is hell and hell is love (or hate), while turning his narratives on a dime from black comedy to extreme violence and then to stratospheric levels of hysterical slapstick.

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As with Cold Fish, Guilty Of Romance draws on elements of real-life events to build its plot. Set just before the Millennium, the film opens as a gruesome murder scene is uncovered by Detective Kazuko (Miki Mizuno) in Tokyo's 'Love Hotel' district of Maruyama-cho (essentially Love Hotels are a form of legitimate 'lbrothel' with aspects of a hotel, used by both hookers and couples lacking their own apartments, a peculiarly Japanese social device).

The victim is a woman, dismembered and fused with parts of a mannequin and left in a derelict apartment, the bizarre graffitti and paint splashes on the wall completing the hideous picture. Framed by this detective murder story, Sono's film then unfolds via a non-linear narrative that intertwines the police investigation with another preceding story of two women descending into sexual and psychological extremes, who are connected somehow to the murder.

We are sure that one must be the victim given the opening sequence with the body hinted as being the narrative link, but who was it, and which one was the killer?

These other two women are housewife Izumi and university literature professor Mitsuko. Unconnected at first, they encounter one another because they share a similar double life.

Izumi is the bored wife of a famous novelist, who though not cruel is emotionally and sexually distant, and insistent on a clinical level of orderliness in his household. In a series of amusing little scenes we see Izumi running her household to the beat of the hallway clock, twisting her husband's slippers round to face inwards towards the house at precisely 10 seconds to 9 o'clock so that her husband's prompt arrival at 9pm will proceed smoothly.

These and other motifs mark Izumi out as demure and meek, but under growing internal pressure to do something with her life - a tension accentuated by the intrusions of an intense and insistent throbbing soundtrack that Sono's works are known for (here he mixes up the pulsing electronic beats with stretches of classical music). Ironically, given his repressed nature, Izumi's husband is himself an erotic novelist, though the few scenes we are given of his readings mark his work out as hilariously banal.

Tentatively dipping her toe in the waters of freedom, Izumi finds a part-time job as a food stall clerk in a deli (selling, with crude pun surely intended, giant sausages). But before long she is offered a far more intriguing form of employment - a modelling agency rep cajoles her into coming in for a shoot. The money is good, but the work moves quickly from lingerie to full-on porn.

In a series of scenes both uncomfortable, brutal (Izumi's experiences in the model agency set are at minimum sexual assault if not rape) and yet also blackly funny (the model agency crew are a ludicrously prissy, greasy and overstyled bunch), we see Izumi start to embrace with abandon the feeling of being wanted, of being found attractive, and pushing at her barriers of the acceptable. Izumi is before long roaming the streets of the neon-drenched love hotel district herself looking for excitement, which is where she collides with Mitsuko.

Mitsuko (Makoto Togashi), is a professor of literature by day, by night she is a veteran street hooker with a warped belief in the power given over men by demanding cash for sex. Sono has shown a fascination with characters who are swept up by dominating figures before - see the larger than life serial killer as portrayed by Den Den in Cold Fish. Izumi is likewise caught up helplessly in Mitsuko's wake, as the two embark on a tortured sexual odyssey. A nymphomaniac with severe psychological scars and a dark family past, Mitsuko literally is there to take Izumi to the gates of hell.

It is notable that, of the two plot threads, it is the detective story that is by far the slighter tale and feels almost redundant at times either as a framing device or an intriguing narrative on its own, though the the crime scene and the morgue are atmospherically-shot with some nice nods to genre classics (the model and make-up work on the corpse are particularly superb) and suggest Sono would at least be able to craft a good-looking conventional crime film if he turned his hand to it.

Unsurprisingly, the international cut of the film screened here runs 45 minutes shorter than the Cannes version with the detective story (which featured the sexual tribulations of Detective Kazuko, tying it in tighter to the picture as a whole) seemingly the biggest loser. Thus for non-Japanese viewers it is incorrect to approach Guilty Of Romance as “a dramatic account of three women and their lives” as marketing material has implied. The focus is squarely on Mitsuko and Izumi, and actresses Megumi Kagurazaka and Makoto Togashi are put through the ringer here by Sono, who always demands - and gets - intense performances from his actors in extremely uncomfortable scenarios that will doubtless have some raising accusations of misogyny here.

Sono's films always look exceptional and are edited into an intense experience, and Guilty Of Romance is no exception. The alleyways of red-light Tokyo are a garish neon jungle of heat and sensuality cut through with vivid fluorescent colour streaks, reminiscent of other Asian films such as those of Wong Kar-Wai. Contrasting with the seedy side streets and Izumi's antiseptic modern apartment is the nightmarish crime scene - a drenched hellhole that would not have looked out of place in David Fincher's Se7en.

As the film builds to a demented fever pitch, we are assaulted by the kind of graphic and sound mix that only Sion Sono's mind can construct, with the couplings of various characters seeming to become longer, more frequent and violent. In one particularly bizarre scene a rough and very vocal sexual encounter between Mitsuko and a client climaxes, as Izumi watches, with a series of exploding pink paintbombs violently hurled into the mix by Mitsuko's weird partner Kaoru (Kobayashi Ryuju).

Guilty Of Romance's fusion of graphic violence, black humour and strong sexual content in this exploration of warped empowerment and transgression in modern Japan is an intense and alternately hysterical and gritty brew that nevertheless remains somehow less pleasing than either Cold Fish or Love Exposure.

It is neither as immediately engaging than the wacky Love Exposure, nor as tightly held together and controlled as Cold Fish. With 45 minutes from one of the film's two main plot threads excised (so the detective story ends up feeling like it is barging in on the narrative rather than being a organic part of it) and a possibly too-thickly applied layer of extreme sex, violence and social study left over, the result is a less unified and satisfying whole. Needless to say, viewers who don't like the idea of directors going for extremes or looking like they are being indulgent should not apply.

Reviewed on: 10 Oct 2011
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Guilty Of Romance packshot
Third episode of Sono's 'Hate trilogy' tells the story of two women, within the framework of a detective narrative.
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Director: Shion Sono

Writer: Sion Sono, based on an original idea by Mizue Kunizane

Starring: Megumi Kagurazaka, Miki Mizuno, Makoto Togashi, Kandji Tsuda, Ryo Iwamatsu, Ryuju Kobayashi

Year: 2011

Runtime: 112 minutes

BBFC: 18 - Age Restricted

Country: Japan


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If you like this, try:

Cold Fish