Antiporno (Cert 18)
2 Discs DVD/Blu-ray combo (Distributor: Third Window Films) Running Time: 76 minutes approx.
In 2016 it was decided that the Roman Porno movement of the 1970’s and 80’s from famed studio Nikkatsu should be rebooted by directors of the modern generation. Five directors were chosen but only one dared to subvert the entire premise for his own designs. Well, when you hire Sion Sono you shouldn’t expect anything less.
For the uninitiated, Roman Porno (or pink films) were quick films of around 70 minutes in length made to a tight budget that would allow the director a free reign if there was nudity and a sex scene every ten minutes. So, no bonking gladiators or dirty talk in Latin here although I wouldn’t put it past Sono to include the later.
The story is convoluted but even more difficult to discuss without spoiling the many twists that occur. It begins in a large open plan room with gaudy yellow walls where successful young author and artist Kyoko (Ami Tomite) wakes up and morosely ponders the state of her life until the doorbell rings and she switches to an upbeat and perky ball of joyous energy.
At the door is Kyoko’s assistant Noriko (Mariko Tsutsui), a timorous, plain looking older woman eager to please Kyoko but falls foul of her selfish caprice and ego, and suffers unspeakable abuse at Kyoko’s hands. A photographer and magazine editor then arrive but Noriko’s humiliation is far from over, with the newcomers relishing in this scenario and encouraging further abuse.
It is around the 30-minute mark than Sono flips everything on its head, and what we had hitherto been watching takes on a very different meaning for the audience and the characters. Not to give anything significant away but Sono takes us into Meta territory but even then the boundaries are never fully established and whatever cinematic walls exist, the only one who seems to know where they are is Sono himself.
With his reputation as a maverick director and purveyor of many sexually questionable scenes and plots in his films, it might seem unthinkable that Sono was the sole director who chose to use the Roman Porno reboot Project to strike a blow for feminism rather than perpetuate the men only appeal of the genre the others involved did. Yet, if you look at his 2015 film Tag, that was a rallying cry for women to be treated better in a male dominated society but that was set to the beat of a gory satire.
Antiporno as a title says plenty as far as the film’s motives and core message goes but doesn’t completely prepare the audience for the surreal and psychedelic head-spin presentation that lies beyond that. It’s a story about liberation, control, hypocrisy and the treatment of women as mere objects, wrapped up in a vibrant package of garrulous monologues and disturbing tableau of artistic and arty decadence, held together by a narrative that never seems to have a fixed destination in mind.
The “sex scene every 10 minutes” rule is adhered to but inventively undermined but this is part of Sono’s plan to explore the value of on screen copulation as either titillation or cause for upset. This isn’t a sexy film per se although there is no denying the frequently naked Kyoko is a “sexy” figure to behold but there is a reason for that which is later deconstructed and obliterated.
In decrying the exploitation of women on film, Sono takes as his cue the concept of freedom, positing Kyoko as a woman who believes woman can only true freedom by giving herself over to sexual liberation; the flaw in the idea however is that by doing so, one becomes a “whore” and thus her freedom is at the whims and control of the men who are the only ones that can give her that feeling of liberation through sex.
Quite how Kyoko comes to this realisation takes us on another uncertain path into the darkness of her aberrant psyche to a provocative dinner table conversation with her parents about sex. It’s a coarse discussion that dissects the varied terminology of the subject, succinctly emphasising the attitudes between wholesome and acceptable martial sex and the obscene activities of “whores”.
Regular Sono fans will recognise some of the thematic and visual touches found in some of his other films – such as the use of paint from Himizu, the sexual exploitation of Guilty Of Romance and the psychotic dissonance of Strange Circus – yet we can’t dismiss this as a sign of laziness or lack of ideas as Sono has the canny ability to make it feel fresh since it comes out of nowhere, although it is in keeping of the avant garde approach of the film.
Despite a number of faces appearing the screen, many of them given challenging and esoteric roles, this really boils down to the duo of Kyoko and Noriko to carry the film. Played by veteran Mariko Tsutsui, Noriko undergoes a change like Kyoko does but not as introspective, allowing Tsutsui to get her teeth into relaying two personalities inside the one skin, a remarkable transformation deftly handled.
There is an irony in that Ami Tomite will come out of this film as a major star in waiting even though she gets naked to do it – but that is exactly what Sono is going for. Tomite’s performance is a stunning achievement given her youth (22 years-old at the time) and the sheer scope of avenues she has to take Kyoko down, physically and mentally – a true powerhouse performance by any standard.
I won’t pretend that I understood everything Sono was going for and trying to impart with Antiporno and I might not be alone in this, but the central message comes through clear enough. Regardless, it is hard not be transfixed by this deliriously ambitious and dizzying work. Running a brisk 76-minutes, this is a short, sharp shock of intelligent, subversive satire showing Sono at his philosophically cheekiest and visually provocative.
Japanese 2.0 Surround Sound
Audio Commentary by film critic Jasper Sharp
Interview with actress Ami Tomite
Rating – *** ½
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