So, what WAS the best movie I watched in 2012?
If you read about the Runner’s Up, you may be surprised (don’t you just hate it when the writer assume something about you, the reader? Me too– but I still do it for rhetorical value. Sorry.) that anything could top Metropolis or Bride of Frankenstein. In fact, most people will be shocked at the pick all together and maybe even scoff and close the page because of my inferior judgement. But I stand by the film– Strange Circus, by Shion Sono, was the best movie I watched this year.
Strange Circus is messy, bold, unwieldy, and flawed. It is also profoundly powerful, a din of images, music and people that grows louder and louder until it is deafening. What may well be the masterpiece of Shion Sono’s career, Strange Circus is the film of a director at his pinnacle– a deliberately orchestrated madness that few other writers would be able to conceive.
Strange Circus is book-ended and interrupted by visions of a circus tent filled with bizarre people– giant eyes, gold-painted, lavishly costumed, perhaps unreal. An emcee thanks everyone for coming and wheels a guillotine onto the stage, asking for volunteers. A small girl steps up and the emcee takes her hand, leading her to the gore-caked blade. “Are you afraid to die?” He asks the girl, named Mitsuko. “No,” her careful reply. “It’s almost like I was born on the execution stand, anyway. If not, I was born to my mother as she awaited execution.”
The line will return again and again in the film, from the mouths of different characters, and in new and varying shades, but for now the girl uses it to tell her tale. The plot begins with child abuse– the young girl is locked in a cello case by her sadistic father while their parents make love. Eventually, his attention turns to Mitsuko. What follows is a sickening tale of abuse that is made palpable by a mid-picture shift that forces us to question every character and every scene.
Strange Circus examines mothers and daughters, sex and jealousy, abuse and guilt, hallucination and desire in a way that no other film has. It is in a class, and a genre, all its own. Not quite a horror film, despite its disturbing imagery, and not quite a drama, despite its analysis of family, Strange Circus is an island onto itself in the world of film.
There are a lot of films, including many of my favorites, that examine truth, hallucination, and the unreliable narrator: Taxi Driver, Videodrome, Body Double, The Shining, Blowup, among many others, but none do it quite like Strange Circus. The film takes abstract words– “truth,” “mother,” “story,” “execution,” “memory”– and vivisects each one. Its deconstruction of perception is so complete, its toxic cynicism is so beautiful, that you may just end the movie and start it again.
It’s also an amazing visual achievement, a strange tapestry of lost souls. They navigate a beautiful and unusual world, filled with rusty carousels, bloody walls, exotic sculptures and Japanese rooftops. The acting is spectacular– Masumi Miyazaki is the backbone of the film giving a career-high performance as the central figure of the film. Relative newcomer Issei Ishida is restrained genius as mysterious and sympathetic Yuji, running the full gamut of human emotions. Rie Kuwana and Mai Takahashi are both bold young actresses, fulfilling the very difficult task of playing a young Mitsuko. Takahashi, in particular, gives the sort of scorching performance you never forget. Hiroshi Ohguchi, as the domineering father Gozo, is a solid, menacing presence in the midst of chaos and insanity.
The real accolades, however, have to go once again to Shion Sono, a highly unusual and supremely talented director. I’ve never seen a Shion Sono film that recalled any other film– including other Shion Sono films. To my eyes, Strange Circus is the work of a director at his absolute peak. A complex, labyrinthine and visionary work, Strange Circus is, if nothing else, unforgettable.
Strange Circus is somewhat difficult to come by, unfortunately, but is available to purchase on YouTube here for $3.99, and on DailyMotion here. Otherwise, you should probably just buy it, because I’ve never led you astray before.