Fantasia Film Fest 2013: Top Five Sion Sono Films

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Closing off the 2013 edition of the Fantasia International Film Festival is a new film by long time Fantasia favourite Sion Sono. Sion Sono is one of the few filmmakers to completely embody the ethos of Fantasia and he has been an almost constant presence at the festival since he won the award for most ground-breaking film for Suicide Club in 2002. His newest movie, Bad Film, was edited together from over 150 hours of footage he shot in 1993 and will be making its Canadian Premiere at this year’s festival. In anticipation of this film, I am counting down Sion Sono’s five best films.

5. Noriko’s Dinner Table (2006)

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A vague prequel to Suicide Club, Noriko’s Dinner Table remains somewhat on the fringes of popularity with North American audiences. Though it does not reach the breadth of Love Exposure, it is perhaps closest to that film in style, as it examines more thoroughly the cult that was introduced in Suicide Club. In many ways, this is Sono’s most down to earth film. Its focus is focused on the dinner table and features the highly dysfunctional Japanese family as its centerpiece. Sexual deviancy and violence became an expression for social decay, a theme that runs through most of Sono’s work. He is never content with easy images, metaphors and ultimately revels in the absurdity of life and death. Though often surprisingly touching, the film’s characterizations put into question autonomy in a society with strict social expectations. The film’s only downfall is that it is somewhat bloated.

4. Suicide Club (2001)

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Now an iconic image of contemporary horror and dread, Suicide Club begins with an impossibly cheerful and gruesome mass suicide. On a seemingly normal day on the Tokyo subway, 54 schoolgirls join hands, recite a rhyme and jump in front of an ongoing train. The rest of the film is an investigation into this mass suicide, as well as a series of others committed by young people across the country. The investigation leads to a strange website, a zany cult and some very weird people. Probably the best entry point in Sono’s filmography as it features his darkest and lightest moments, the film effortlessly shifts from the macabre to the absurd from one sequence to the next. It even features a dark and strangely playful musical, the first of many in his career.

3. Exte: Hair Extensions (2007)

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Probably his film that runs closest to being conventional, Hair Extensions is a dark examination of human trafficking and the black market trade of human organs… a dark and obscure reality of our contemporary world. Sono successfully and rather cleverly ties these real crimes with themes of youth and vanity. Never one to take the easy way out, Sono expresses these dark and often complex issues through the absurd metaphor of cursed hair extensions that turn on their unsuspecting hosts. Among his more divisive films, it stands out nonetheless as being more succinct and focused than many of his works. It also should be noted that he succeeds rather gracefully at making something as mundane as hair truly horrifying. This is also a perfect case in point to the fact that Sono is often at his best when he is focused on female protagonists, and Chiaki Kuriyama truly shines in the film’s lead role.

2. Strange Circus (2005)

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Though it is difficult to truly determine which of Sono’s films is most disturbing, it is difficult to match the incestuous meta-murder story presented in Strange Circus. Narratively speaking, few films match the complexity of the temporal and reality/fantasy breakdown presented in this film. Constantly shifting its starting point and utilizing unreliable narrators, the film paints a portrait of reality not fixed by time or action, but by the horrific limitlessness of the human mind. Excluding the downright hateful Cold Fish, this is probably Sono’s darkest film, painting a portrait of a society that thrives on destruction and violence. Strange Circus also succeeds at being Sono’s most beautiful movie, and each scene seems to be bathed in a different tone or texture of the colour red. Not for the faint of heart, the film feels like an exercise in manipulation, as if Sono were taking his own hand at creating the material for the cults that are omnipresent in his work.

1. Love Exposure (2009)

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Without a doubt Sono’s magnum opus, Love Exposure is a four hour marathon thesis taking on the topic of love. Tackling the various forms in which love is expressed or perverted within our society, from family, religion, friendship, and sex, Love Exposure is a master class on the most consuming obsession we have as humans, aside from our own mortality. The film’s greatest success is that in spite of its graphic and often disturbing presentation of violence, perversion and hatred, it maintains an air of love and adoration that manages to transcend biological impulse and grade school poetry… somehow reaching to some strange depth of the human soul that we rarely get to glimpse into. Though with an air of the absurd (our protagonist knows when he has found his true love, his “virgin Mary”, because she is the only woman who can give him an erection), the film has a sincere and complex take on issues of love. This film encompasses most of Sion Sono’s themes and obsessions, from cults, to religion, to incest, and yet brings to the table consistently and completely new and exciting ideas and materials. Like climbing Mt. Everest, this is a film that should have been killed by its own ambition, but somehow transcends all expectations becoming one of the great films of the 21st Century.

– Justine Smith

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