Reviewed by: Luke Shaw

Kuso - broadcasting through a makeshift network of discarded televisions, this story is tangled up in the aftermath of Los Angeles' worst earthquake nightmare. Travel between screens and aftershocks into the twisted lives of the survived.
"It’s absolutely a little squalid, but focusing on these elements ignores the often sublime visuals that permeate the film." | Photo: Courtesy of Sundance Film Festival

Kuso, the first film by musician and artist Flying Lotus (AKA Steven Ellsion, AKA Steve), is preceded by a slew of articles declaring it “the grossest movie ever made” and it caused a steady stream of walkouts at the recent Sundance Film Festival thanks to its depraved contents. This collection of short, surreal, and absurd films are definitely trying to push the envelope, but they never really transgress into outright offensive or shocking. If anything, they’re absolutely tame compared to many experiments that have filtered into the mainstream via the internet. Instead of being a cinematic endurance test, Kuso is a rich and humorous tapestry of ridiculous scenarios that mix genuine artistry with fart jokes and gooey practical effects.

The stories that Ellison has concocted all take place after a cataclysmic earthquake that has rocked LA, leaving behind a gaggle of survivors sporting numerous boils, scabs and blisters on their faces, as well as a predilection for the scatalogical. To explain the plots outright would do the film a disservice. These are mind-bending trips into the nonsense that lies beneath the veneer of the mundane, and to explain them also rob the film of its many twists and punchlines. Instead, it’s better to talk in broad strokes: there’s an obsession with the disgusting nature of the body and what it can excrete, secrete or ejaculate, but also with what lies in the recesses of the mind, the dark corners where rot and filth fester.

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Alongside collaborations with musicians Aphex Twin and Thundercat, David Firth also lends animation and voice talents, with cameos from more of Steve’s friends. George Clinton plays a doctor (or rather a “host” to a transgressive kind of therapy). Tim Heidecker of post-internet duo Tim & Eric fame is in attendance as a rapist and creep who ends up in a tangle with some interdimensional monsters/cosmic frat boys, one of whom is played by Hannibal Buress. These are little more than sly winks to Ellison’s connections in the industry, but they don’t ever distract, and often lend an uncanny sheen to proceedings.

It’s worth taking a moment to talk about the walkouts and the scenes that have caused it to be labelled disturbing or crass. Kuso is gunning for knee jerk reactions - it features genital violence, cosmic abortion, the smearing of ejaculate and feces, but none of it is beyond tolerable. It’s absolutely a little squalid, but focusing on these elements ignores the often sublime visuals that permeate the film. In one short, a woman crawls stares into a bit of recursive static before diving in, the screen bifurcated by the image of her falling down a narrow seam like a lo-fi Under The Skin, in another a boy wanders through a dreamlike woodland tableau filled with strange organic growths.

There are also clear nods to animation such as Akira, as well as the fractal imagery featured in music videos of recent years. It’s hard to feel like the film was designed solely to disgust when one of its most captivating moments shows a near endless spaceship made up of what appears to be a picture of meat and ribs wrapped over a fractal skeleton that spews flying roast chickens. Trying to tie all of its disparate but ultimately linked imagery together is an exercise in futility, despite the beat poetry bookends that hint at an underlying stab at the shortcomings of the current zeitgeist relation to media and the extreme.

After the credits roll, there’s a feeling that this film is a kind of psychic scream, similar to those that feature in the Japanese animation Ellison is clearly fond of. It is a moment of release, a physical and mental earthquake that has exercised something from the substrata of the city and modern urban life. Kuso is in part a gross-out comedy but it is also full of truly artistic and psychedelic visuals that hint at meaning beyond the degeneracy. If the people that walked out had stuck around to the end, maybe they might not have been so affronted by its use of the crass to illustrate its points.

Reviewed on: 27 Feb 2017
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Broadcasting through a makeshift network of discarded televisions, this story is tangled up in the aftermath of Los Angeles's worst earthquake nightmare.

Director: Flying Lotus

Writer: David Firth, Flying Lotus

Starring: Anders Holm, George Clinton, Byron Bowers

Year: 2017

Runtime: 105 minutes

Country: US

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