Direcrted by Sion Sono
Near the end of Strange Circus, a chainsaw wielding psychotic exclaims directly to the audience, “What’s real and what’s not?” This could easily be the byline for the film, as Strange Circus provides no easily discernible interpretation until the final frames have rolled. The intentionally convoluted story is finally untangled in the last few minutes with a virtuosic ending that tidies up most of the plot confusion without resolving the emotional turmoil created in the viewer. No, you’ll have to take that home with you I’m afraid…
Like Suicide Club, Sion Sono’s latest film is not easily categorized. It is most certainly a horrific film given that the focus of the story is incest, denial, and revenge. However, even given its taboo subject matter, Strange Circus does not provide us with easy villains and a well defined morality. In fact, the film forces the uneasy viewer to side with a pedophile by confusing identities in the last act. We don’t know where our allegiances lie until it’s too late.
The fuzzy identities of some of the main characters will be the primary source of confusion for most viewers and likely the most common cause for complaint from Sono fans expecting another Suicide Club. However, it helps to know that this intentional identity obfuscation is played for Lynchian effect. Of course, calling something “Lynchian” is usually just a lazy way of calling something “weird,” but in this case the adjective holds, given Strange Circus‘ penchant for character swapping, demented cabaret, dwarves, and an unsettling narrative logic that makes one feel as if they’ve just woken up from another person’s dream.
Given the difficulty of summarizing Strange Circus‘ plot, it may be easier to make another comparison. If the characters and narrative are Lynchian, then surely the structure and tone of the film can be said to belong, at least partially, to Takeshi Miike. Strange Circus seems to be particularly linked to Audition, even recycling the famous “it’s all a dream” sequence. At one point, just as the film becomes particularly cruel, the main character wakes up in a seaside hotel, causing the abused audience to sigh in relief. Moments later we find out that waking up was the dream, and the reality is that we’re dropped back into a scene even more sinister than the last. While Audition doesn’t have a patent on using dreams to throw an audience off, the structure of this sequence is so similar in both films that Sono must either be tipping his hat or throwing down the gauntlet to Miike.
This derivative nature of Strange Circus is somewhat problematic given that it tries so hard to be wholly original and avant-garde. The film is unlike anything you have ever seen, yet also strangely familiar. That said, synthesizing Lynch and Miike is not a job easily performed by the rank and file ripoff artist. Sono manages to reserve at least one ring under the Strange Circus big top in which to display his own dark preoccupations.
4 out of 5
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