Love And Other Cults (Cert 18)

2 Discs DVD/Blu-ray combo (Distributor: Third Window Films) Running Time: 96 minutes approx.

Loosely based on the true story of an unnamed AV actress, Love And Other Cults could cheekily be summarised as Sion Sono’s Love Exposure condensed from 4 hours to 96 minutes. But Eiji Uchida, noted for his cynical, nihilistic looks at the seedy underbelly of Japanese society, presents us with a slightly pricklier affair.

Representing the anonymous subject is Ai Shima (Sairi Itou), born to a religious-mad mother (Leona Hirota) who ships her young daughter off to a cult commune for ruining her vibes. At the commune, Ai is rechristened Ananda and is worshipped as a holy being by cult leader Lavi (Matthew Chozick) until the authorities close the camp down.

Ai returns home after seven years to her disinterested mother, only to be rejected again. She quits school to live with a group of deadbeats until her cheating boyfriend sells her out to avoid a beating from the Yakuza whose sister is the other woman. Ai ends up with the family of kindhearted schoolgirl Yuka (Kana Matsumoto) but her attempts to repay them backfire.

It gets more complex and at times borderline implausible – but sadly not improbable – as Ai struggles to find stability in life, yet true happiness continues to elude her, largely through missteps that aren’t always her own fault. Ai’s saviour of sorts is Ryota (Kenta Suga), the narrator of this tale and the one constant in her life whether she realises it or not.

Ryota first met Ai during her brief time at school but it was enough for him to fall in love with her. Looking to earn enough money to leave town, Ryota joins a gang led by wannabe Yakuza Yuji (Kaito Yoshimura) and baseball wielding hulk Kenta (Antony). Ryota and Ai regularly cross paths following lengthy periods apart with Ai having sunk lower at each stage, barely recognisable to Ryota.

This might be Ai’s story but Uchida expands the scope to include the parallel journeys of the supporting characters, perhaps to illustrate how the least likely people can find love and happiness unexpectedly, or a cruel juxtaposition highlighting Ai’s continual missing out whilst the less deserving have it all. If this is an embellishment to the story by Uchida, it is an astute one reflecting one of the oldest anomalies of life.

In the late second act, Ai disappears shifting the focus to Yuji and Kenta, coasting along as bottom end muscle for local Yakuza boss Kida (Denden). This proxy power goes to Yuji’s head, determining his future direction while Kenta finds love with diver/underwater photographer Reika (Hanae Kan) in the “opposites attract” thread in this story.

Unfortunately Ryota is afforded less time to develop, rendering him a blank canvas upon which a journey of redemption is painted but without the backstory and solid foundation to engage the audience. Some of this is rectified in the deleted scenes found in the extras of this release, mostly linked to his periodic encounters with Ai, but they only paper over the cracks rather then fill them.

Ai’s trajectory is predominantly in the descendent; a rare reversal of fortune is either fleeting or comes with a major caveat where smooth sailing is seldom guaranteed. Since it all began with the lack of attention paid to her by her mother, Ai is over compensated to the extreme as she ends up a vessel for sex – from cheated girlfriend to prostitute and eventually a porn star, this is her default fallback when all else fails, even when her motives are genuine.

Further scenes of some importance in the extras again offer a wider and much clearer picture of the systematic abuse Ai suffered, be it through trust, of her body or her need to be loved. Their omission from the final cut, along with other scenes of great significance to the narrative, deny the film, and Ai, of much of its sympathy, whilst the two alternate endings are likely to prove preferable to the existing one by bookending the film with light hearted quirkiness.

Uchida is a director who demands a lot from his leads and is fortunate to have found some sturdy enough and willing enough to meet them. In former child star Sairi Itou, Uchida has found arguably his most sensational performer yet. Chameleon like in her various guises of Ai’s life, Itou maintains a faint link to the lost girl we met at the start in the different iterations of her character regardless of changes in her image, age and circumstance.

It might be open to debate but the women offer the strongest performances across the board which is damning them with faint praise in the sense their characters tend to be victims of misogyny and sexual abuse, while the males with their false bravado and thuggish slip towards caricature too often, especially Kaito Yoshimura as Yuji. Veteran Denden avoids this trap as Kida but both sadly show more personality than Kenta Suga as Ryota.

Produced by Third Window Films boss Adam Torel, this film is Uchida’s most polished work to date, leaving behind the gritty indie veneer for sharply focused photography and smooth camerawork. Yet there is little mainstream about this film, at least not in the truest sense as Uchida still has his finger on the pulse when depicting the sleazier side of Japanese society.

With the identity of the real life Ai currently undisclosed (unless anyone knows better) we are left to assume the veracity of the facts haven’t been too distorted, yet the tragedy of one woman’s need for genuine love and attention leading her down unsavoury and salacious paths acts as a shaming indictment of a society that needs to stop valuing a woman’s worth beyond her usefulness as a sex object.

Love And Other Cults is Uchida at his most mature without compromising his credentials as a fearlessly trenchant filmmaker, but had the deleted scenes been in the final cut, this would have been a more powerful film.

 

Extras:

Japanese DTS-MA HD

English subtitles

Another Story – Deleted Scenes and Alternate Endings

Eiji Uchida talks With Kenta Suga

Music Video

Trailer

 

Rating – ****

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