2005. Directed by Sion Sono.
The madman of Japan, Sion Sono delivers a twisted Grand Guginol fable, filled with hideous sexual deviance, shocking violence, and an uncomfortably surreal examination of the human mind's tolerance for trauma and guilt.
Strange Circus is a poisonous nesting egg, beginning as a horror story about a young girl who is forced to participate in the sexual theatrics of her parents. The child soon becomes the father's preferred partner, destroying what little sanity the mother has left. The narrative then peels off another layer of skin revealing that the events being witnessed are actually part of a novel being written by a woman named Taeko. Or are they? As she continues her story she's joined by an assistant named Yuji who has an agenda of his own. A third story involves a lurid carnival filled with costumed voyeurs, who's ringleader appears to be narrating the events of both of the other stories. As the tension builds the line between fantasy and reality erodes as all three tales converge into a miasma of the flesh, a harbinger for the film's unshakable blood soaked conclusion.
Sono also wrote the script, composed the classical score, and handled the cinematography. Strange Circus is a razor blade jigsaw puzzle, demanding that the viewer assemble its vicious pieces one at a time. Most of the action takes place in the family's pristine house, that masks the corruption within. The influence of Lynch and Oshima pervades every frame as Sono deconstructs a nefarious topic by presenting the subject matter as a visceral assault. One of the film's more intriguing aspects is how it uses one of the most unspeakable topics to casually ridicule our tendency to use subterfuge to hide transgressions. The author can clearly walk, yet uses a wheelchair, the child adopts her mother's persona to better please her father, and the hypnotic circus contains a Ferris Wheel that doesn't work. Everything is an illusion and Sono hammers this concept home with sickening acts of depravity offset by lush set pieces and vibrant colors. Red, of course, is the central color, but unlike other films, its presence doesn't signal danger, but rather submission.
Masumi Miyazaki gives a stellar performance as the mother and author. Her ability to make you love and hate a character is so intense that the viewer can often forget which story is which, hopelessly following her characters as they commit heinous acts of abuse and yet sympathizing with their victimization. Her work in the finale is revolting and yet endearing in its surrender. She is supported by Issei Ishida, Mai Takahashi, and Hiroshi Ohguchi. Ishida delivers the most insidious performance as the author's assistant, but to extrapolate would spoil the fun(?).
Available now on DVD, Strange Circus is a film that leaves a sour stain on the soul. Featuring some of the most beautifully filmed acts of reprehensible abuse, it is the definition of offensive art. However, if you're looking for a horror film that rewards endurance and patience, Strange Circus delivers through the use of thought provoking imagery in a sea of nightmares. Absolutely not for the weak of heart, this is a film that will both divide and inspire conversation on its symphonic approach to some of the darkest acts human beings are capable of.