Red Post On Escher Street (Escher dori no akai posuto)
Japan (2020) Dir. Sion Sono
So you think making a film is easy? Just get a camera, find some people to ponce about, edit it and upload to YouTube and you’re on your way to Hollywood? Unfortunately not, as there are many tangibles to be taken into consideration. Ask Sion Sono, he knows.
Tadashi Kobayashi (Tatsuhiro Yamaoka) is a popular film director with festival credibility which an odious financier (Tetsu Watanabe) wants to capitalise on by having Kobayashi make a film for him. He has producer Muto (Taro Suwa) get Kobayashi on board then interfere with the casting to put two star names and Muto’s younger lover in main roles.
Known for his edgy indie style, Kobayashi is keen to return to those roots by casting amateurs and has already put out an open casting call. People with stars in their eyes or personal reasons for wanting to act apply and receive auditions, but whilst Kobayashi is reluctantly forced to acquiesce to Muto’s demands, his muse Katako (Mala Morgan) exerts her influence over Kobayashi in sticking to his true vision.
Apologies for the glib plot summary but that is about as much storyline as we get in this meta love letter to filmmaking from one of Japan’s most prolific and individual directors, Sion Sono. It is well documented that Sono lives and almost died for his art, suffering a heart attack in 2019 from overwork, which you’d think would be a wake-up call for Sono but he still keeps on ticking.
Red Post On Escher Street has an element of reflection on the highs and lows of Sono’s career in the scathing but valuably insightful script, yet the origins of this project are typically obtuse for Sono. He was hosting a workshop for aspiring actors but instead of just lecturing them, he decided to make a film with them, using his own experiences as a filmmaker and those of the young actors trying to get a break as its foundation.
Sono therefore gives many of the cast their first taste of professional work here, though he didn’t intended for it to be a theatrical release, just something for the actors to gain experience from and to put on their CVs. As such, the names of most the cast aren’t apparent so forgive this lack of information.
How many genuine stories behind the varied bunch of hopefuls shred here is anyone’s guess. First is the wannabe in a café who is given a flyer and thinks she has been singled out; then there is an all female theatre group who decide to enter together, and a cult dedicated to worshipping Kobayashi, five girls in virginal white outfits who caress a giant poster of his face.
Providing a more interesting story is young widow Kiriko (Matsuri Kohira), deciding to fulfil the acting dream of her late husband against the wishes of her mother and her boyfriend, Kiriko’s former father-in-law! Meanwhile, the most memorable audition comes from emotional powder keg Yabuki Yasuko (Sen Fujimaru), fresh off murdering her rapist father.
Up until this point, the film looked to be Sono’s breeziest work yet with some gentle humour but subtle pathos, but Sono is gonna Sono and things get dark and provocative rather quickly. Imagine being given a nicely wrapped gift which you open and you put your hand into a steel bear trap – that is how abrupt the change in tone it.
Without spoiling anything, filming takes place in the final act but not with the expected main cast because of Muto’s influence. But, those who rejected decide to fight back and assume roles as extras in the film so they still get their 15 seconds of fame – and yes, that is correct, according to a veteran extra with his own followers in one particularly amusing adjunct.
Discerning what Sono is saying here will yield different theories. The tribute to cinema as an art form and its difficulty to break into is obvious; the fact he even makes the extras a focal point shows Sono appreciates everyone involved in film making whilst saying the first step is the most important. Producers are portrayed in a less flattering light but is less a cliché, more Sono standing up for the artist’s right to fulfil his own vision.
Freedom to choose your own path in life is another key theme, realised via the anarchic and incendiary exploits of Yabuki, a galvanising presence in the story and a dynamic turn from Sen Fujimaru who, along with fragile Doona Bae lookalike Matsuri Kohira, is one to watch, though many of the cast make a great opening account for themselves. A few familiar faces from Sono’s previous films round out the line up but the mix is seamless.
On a technical level, Sono shows great prowess in how he brings everything together but never goes overboard with the presentation, since the film was shot in just eight days, sticking to the principles of making simple cinema. The scene where Kiriko decides she will be an extra then walks right into the shoot along with everyone else in one fluid motion is beautifully done, working because it was so simple, even if it was to expediate the plot.
Clocking in at just under 2 ½ hours, the time flies by for most of the run but the chaotic climax feels a smidge protracted, with its cacophony of people shouting at each other and meta pushing disruption of the rules. Along with paying tribute to film as an art form and a career, Sono allows nods to his prior works to be sewn into the fabric of this one, which you can decipher for yourself.
It’s hard to say Sono is back with Red Post On Escher Street as he never went away but one can feel both a renewed passion for his art and palpable opprobrium at profit-minded corporate interference. Characteristically subversive yet ironically accessible, this is Sono’s most glorious and alive work since Love Exposure.