Asian horror has established its own brand over the last decade. A lot of Korean and Japanese horror productions are known for their extremely lurid content that leaves nothing to imagination. One can’t help but admit that the writer/directors responsible for crafting these terrifying films push the boundaries of their imagination and go all out in penning down material for their films.
Only the effort taken in writing scripts of this sort is slowly beginning to shape into a formula of sorts, with Asian horror becoming synonymous with a set of keywords representing the ingredients of a perfect Asian horror recipe: blurred lines between reality and illusion, repressed guilt, psychological trauma, family tragedy, rape, incest, grisly acts of vengeance, over-the-top, gory acts of violence, wildly perverse fetishes and finally a lengthy revelation in the form of a "twist" that turns the story over its head, being the most prominent ingredients in any dish cooked in the hellish kitchen of Asian horror cinema!
This Japanese offering, "Strange Circus" (2005), lives up to its name and churns out a highly macabre and disturbing dish for us viewers as it shoves our heads right into the twisted world of a 12 year old girl, Mitsuko.
Mitsuko is the daughter of Gozo (Hiroshi Ôguchi), a horny old, perverted principal of some grotesque-looking school; the kind that looks like something straight out of someone’s wet nightmare. Gozo has animalistic sex with his wife, Sayuri (Masumi Miyazaki) and is seen by Mitsuko, in the act one night, which triggers off a chain of gross-out events. Gozo gets a different kind of high, knowing Mitsuko saw them! He then proceeds to make her watch, from within a huge cello case, through a peephole, as he has more sex with his wife! By this time he has started raping Mitsuko too! It is only a matter of time, before Sayuri discovers the shocking truth of what Gozo is doing to their daughter! But, wait...this is not going to turn into a conventional drama of the mother trying to protect her daughter! What happens is all the more bizarre! Sayuri is engulfed with jealous rage over the fact that she has to share her husband with her daughter, and starts becoming abusive towards Mitsuko, finding the most trivial of excuses to start thrashing her!
A circus indeed, this, and all these players, the animals; some wild and some meek! Just when you think the narrative couldn’t take any direction different from here, the story apparently takes a leap forward, or it makes a sudden transition of sorts, and we are shown that all these happenings are being written down as novels, starring a character named Mitsuko, by a wheel-chaired writer by the name of Taeko (Masumi Miyazaki again)! So what are we to believe now? Has this all been a work of fiction? Or is Taeko the grown-up Mitsuko, surviving her father’s torment and penning down her autobiography in these novels? And what about the mysterious Yuji (Issei Ishida), the effeminate assistant of the publishers who claims to be Taeko’s fan?
Writer-director Shion Sono doesn’t leave any stone unturned in disgusting his viewer! What we see is far from pleasing; in fact it is sickening, not just the monstrous deeds of Gozo, but also the claustrophobic atmosphere created. It successfully manages to suffocate, as we find ourselves gasping for a breath of fresh air at the end of the first 40 minutes! Gozo and his family live in a mansion-like home, which still seems like a locked up house, devoid of any contact with the outside world! A school is shown, but is it only in Mitsuko’s head? How else does one explain the nightmarish sets of corridors made out of vivid, blood-soaked walls, the principal’s dark cabin that has a pornographic clip playing from a projector, complete with soundtrack, that eventually becomes the venue for Gozo’s first sexual encounter with his daughter; a large TV screen, that only displays a close-up image of the eyes of Gozo, which is dragged inside the classroom as he delivers some speeches for his students and faculty! Maybe the whole school/Principal thing is just symbolic of how Gozo has the power over everything; in this case the only world Mitsuko knows, that’s her small family? It doesn’t take one long to figure out that certain surreal scenes are an exaggerated manifestation of Mitsuko’s (?) oppressed psyche; like the recurring motif of a garish circus with the cross-dressing MC and the ferris wheel that makes a creaking sound that’s deafening to Mitsuko!
At times, the sex, rape, talk of sex and libido seems a bit too gratuitous and tasteless. It’s all over the place, to the extent of being hilarious too! More than 70% of the time Gozo is on screen, he is screwing someone in various positions! Even in one sad scene, a wheel-chaired Mitsuko walks in on him when he is surrounded by hookers and he is having sex with one of them in the living room! The effeminate Yuji is an important character, but there’s something unsettling about his sexually ambiguous ways! It also gets irksome after a while when Taeko who has taken a liking to Yuji starts mimicking him repeatedly whenever he says "yes" in response!
There are hints dropped all along though, as to where the film is heading! People familiar with some other Asian horror may even be able to see what’s to come, but others will surely be in for a huge surprise during the big revelation that unfolds over almost the final 20 minutes, in a ghastly climax of severed limbs and chainsaws and deafening, hysterical outbursts! It is a culmination that will either seem "mind-blowing" or will seem like the makers are cheating the audiences; nonetheless it doesn’t take away from the fact, that it sure does catch us off guard after a considerably gripping build-up of suspense. The gorgeous cinematography aptly captures the imaginative and colorful sets and the tone of the film is set in a manner so as to be disconcerting. Despite all the shrieking and wildly over-the-top acting, it is Masumi Miyazaki that runs away with the laurels. She surely deserves the acting accolades. It is a daring performance by an actress who is as beautiful as she is talented.
This is one circus you don’t want to take your kids or family to. And it is definitely not meant for the squeamish. Take a trip….if you dare!