The era of pornsploitation is upon us. Two recent landmarks of international genre film are having their local debuts this weekend: Sion Sono's four-hour Japanese epic Love Exposure (2008) and Srdjan Spasojevic's A Serbian Film (2010). Both are set in a time and place where porn is pervasive but still branded as taboo, and both use the making of dirty pictures as the gateway to the darkest recesses of the soul, their panicked depictions of sexuality worlds away from the playful soft-core of traditional sexploitation.
A slapstick soap opera resolutely sincere in its sexual-spiritual confusion, Love Exposure is the story of Yu (Takahiro Nishijima, of J-pop boy band AAA), whose dying mother gives the child a Virgin Mary figurine and commands her son to "find a woman just like her to marry." A purity fetish is born, only to be twisted years later when Yu's father first absorbs his grief by becoming a priest, and then falls into an open-secret affair with Kaori, a desperate hot mess in furs and minis ("Make me a Christian!" she wails. "I want it now!"). Kaori disappears, and Yu's father exorcises this new trauma by forcing his son to confess his sins. But Yu doesn't have any — following his mother's instructions, he's saved himself for a virgin bride who hasn't materialized — so, to please his father, the son goes looking for trouble. He ultimately hooks up with a guru who trains him in "the original sin": up-skirt photography.
The film's entire first hour is prologue, building to the convergent fates of Yu and his father; Kaori and her quasi-stepdaughter, Yoko, a neo-punk man-hater whose delicate beauty reels in Yu at first sight; and a mysterious trio of scheming schoolgirls, led by smirking con artist Koike (Sakura Andô, whose brilliant bad-girl routine carries Exposure through its duller spots).
And then it gets weird: With three hours to go, Sono introduces a chapter structure and a rangy conspiracy plot incorporating cross-dressing, bi-curiosity, sexual abuse, an apocalypse cult and a lot of Catholic guilt.
Love Exposure's vastness — its length, its wide range of shooting formats, its epic-novel treatment of both low-culture ephemera and the stuff of life and death — is a large part of its appeal. Sono's everything-all-at-once approach is intentionally disorienting, creating a cloud of perversion panic that almost obscures the fact that this is a film devoid of actual sex. The push-pull between physical and spiritual desire is treated as a purely emotional continuum, with no consideration of either type of devotion's cerebral elements or physical realities. Sono never articulates his thesis more clearly than in one late cut: In one shot, a teenage boy tries to suppress an inconvenient boner; in the next, his family struggles together to raise a towering, phallic cross.
The freak-out continues, albeit much more explicitly, with A Serbian Film, which plays midnight shows this weekend at the Playhouse and Sunset 5. The "Nikola Tesla of the pornographic world," aging stud Milos (Srdjan Todorovic) is retired from dirty movies, but trouble supporting his family compels him to accept a vague, One Last Job proposal from self-styled auteur Vukmir (Sergej Trifunovic). As soon as this "art" project starts to veer toward child exploitation, Milos tells Vukmir he's out. Milos wakes up three days later, covered in bruises and dried blood, with no clue what happened. The production's videotapes reveal that Vukmir drugged Milos to turn him into a zombie who could fuck "freely," without moral qualms over things like murder and incest.
Serbian was branded "the sickest film ever" during its 2010 festival run, a rep bolstered when a Spanish judge levied child-porn charges against the head of the Sitges Film Festival for showing the movie. The version opening here has been edited so that its two instances of child rape are implied via dialogue rather than seen on-screen. It's certainly no less of an unsettling argument against the real-world exploration of extreme fetish ... via a completely gonzo, mondo-esque exploration of extreme fetish.
Virtually every moment of screen time not given over to stomach-churning brutality consists of dialogue about the sick, sad state of post-Miloševi Serbian society. It's specious lip service — that the film exists at all is a more cogent commentary on the nation's collective trauma than any of the direct statements or potential metaphors within.
As black as relatively high-budget exploitation cinema gets, Serbian does have glimmers of comic relief, mostly via crazed filmmaker Vukmir, who — even as his star has nearly beaten him to death — lets the cameras roll and cheers him on: "That's the cinema!"
LOVE EXPOSURE | May 13-19 | Cinefamily at the Silent Movie Theatre | cinefamily.org
A SERBIAN FILM | May 13, midnight | Playhouse, Sunset 5 | serbianfilmmovie.com
Scores provided by Rotten Tomatoes