Let me start with "This is a great fucking film" because it's the most adequate, all-encompassing piece of praise I can think of.
Two weeks ago, I rose at 5 am and quickly prepared a breakfast of Quinoa Flakes, blueberries, stevia, pineapple, and hemp milk. Excited, I slipped the (British) Third Window Films' Blu-ray into my player, took a seat, dug my spoon into the Quinoa, and waited for Cold Fish (Tsumetai nettaigyo, 2010), the second latest film from Japan's Sion Sono, to unfold.
Would it remain a film, as most do, or would it bolt from the pack and become an experience?
Before I placed the empty, blueberry-stained bowl on the tray beside me at 5:22 am, the film had already become an experience and more.
On the rear sleeve of the Blu-ray, it is described as "a psychotic cavalcade of sex, violence, and comedy". It's much more than that, of course, but a little simplification doesn't go astray now and then. Director Sono's skill is in balancing the elements and building a strong foundation for them that is his characters.
The launching place for Cold Fish is a true story known as "The Saitama serial murders of dog lovers". A married couple, both professional dog breeders, sold overpriced dogs to a variety of people, including some yakuza types. When it became apparent that they'd been ripped off by the breeders, the unhappy customers complained. The couple addressed these complaints with murder. It's said that they murdered at least ten people.
In the script by Sion Sono and Yoshiki Takahashi (who also designed the striking, Straw Dogs-inspired poster art), the dog breeders have become fish breeders, and the climax has been changed completely. But according to crime journalist Jake Adelstein, author of Tokyo Vice, the film follows the tenor and details of the original crimes very closely -- at least up to the point where it veers into very different thematic territory.
Shamato, who runs a tropical fish shop with his second wife, is put at a disadvantage when his bratty daughter, Mitsuko, is caught shoplifting. When it seems likely that the store's angry manager will call the police, a kind stranger (fish shop entrepreneur Murata), intervenes on the girl's behalf and smooths matters with the manager, negating police intervention. This apparent act of kindness turns Shamato into grateful, humbled putty in Murata's murderous hands.
The original killers, Gen Sekine and Kirokoo Kazama, become Murata (played with chilling conviction and humor by Denden) and his wife Taeko (Megumi Kagurazaka) here. Like Sekine, Murata is a charming, charismatic rogue whose ability to manipulate those around him is a wicked joy to witness. As audience members, we know where it's all heading, but it's the machinations of his manipulation that are so fascinating. His greatest skill lies in forming bonds separately with each member of Shamato's family. Mitsuko, for one, detests her father and stepmother. When Murata offers to drive her home in his shiny red sports car, he encourages her to disparage her father in the meanest, most disrespectful way. This encouragement endears Murata to her, and puts her at ease with him (all the better to molest her later). Not too much later, Murata catches Shamato's wife Taeko in a vulnerable moment and deviously molests her, groping her breasts and crotch. When he drops her home after an afternoon of lurid intimacy, it's clear that he opened a door into Taeko's psyche (and body) that Shamato lost the key to long ago.
In a series of brilliant master strokes, the shockingly brazen Murata takes informal custody of Mitsuko, endears himself to Taeko, and involves Shamato in a murderous spree from which the psychologically beaten husband and father feels incapable of escaping.
Not since directors Masaru Konuma (Wife To Be Sacrificed, Erotic Diary of an Office Lady) and Norifumi Suzuki (Beautiful Girl Hunter, School of the holy Beast) has a Japanese filmmaker approached the subject of sexuality (and violence) as freshly and thoughtfully as Sono. Although he doesn't make what anybody would call "pink films", he incorporates pink film elements such as extreme fetishism and sadomasochism seamlessly into his scenarios.
Outside of pornography, sexuality and its broader expression (fetishism) is usually bundled (lazily) into the "perversion" basket. For mine, "perversion" is an abstract moral judgment of a particular sexual act provoked subconsciously by religious dogma. It's a meaningless word flung around by repressed, terrified, immature idiots who wouldn't know a human psyche from a hole in the ground. Because "perversion" is used in the West as a banner for sexual acts outside the "norm" (read: admitted to), and has negative religious associations, we're rarely treated to a thought-provoking, Western exploration of it. In Japan, where Christianity hasn't hijacked young minds and old ways, sex is more easily explored for the brilliant, shattering, euphoric force it can be (if you're game). In one of Cold Fish's most mind-blowing sequences, a violent confrontation between Murata and a yakuza gang is intercut with Murata's wife groping the hired help in a nearby closet. The juxtaposition of two forms of fiery passion (anger and lust) creates an atmosphere rarely seen or felt in cinema, and the impact on the viewer is incendiary (on this viewer, anyway). The audaciousness of the scene reminded me of Sono's previous film, Love Exposure (reviewed on this blog), a work that explored fetishism, romance, and the dangers of religious faith.... and, like Cold Fish, balanced the often disparate elements with unbridled skill and gleeful abandon.
When Cold Fish detours from its source, it does so to address thematic issues. From the outset, its hero Shamato is a beaten man. Tensions between his daughter and her stepmother are high. Shamato has lost control of them, their mutual hatred a gulf in the family home. Murata's intervention into their lives is not initially an unwelcome one. It rattles the family, wakes them from their domestic slumber, gives them an pronounced electric charge. Naturally, heaven turns to hell (which is simple physics), and Shamato's feeble grasp on everything becomes more pronounced. Eventually, he becomes Murata's puppet, more an abused son than a business colleague, and his unassertive ways threaten to bury him (literally). And then there's the detour, where the true story falls away and Sono asserts his theme.
The detour is about Shamato gaining control. I hesitate to write "regaining" because I'm not sure if he ever had it. In Japan, there is an entire genre of literature about fathers being beaten up by their wives and children; "Stupid Dad" is one of these. To varying degrees, the Dads of this genre are idiots (?) who work all day and have no relationship with their children. Their lives are of servitude to spoiled ingrates. For their efforts, they gets punished. For performing the traditional "duty" of bread winner, they get hung, burnt, stabbed, and dismembered. In Cold Fish, Shamato is Sono's "Stupid Dad", a man physically and psychologically beaten by the people he's supposed to protect. Unable to moderate the war between the two fighting females in his household, he's retired to a room in his head where the weather conditions outside can not touch him. When Murata enters Shamato's life, Shamato is happy to pass the "Stupid Dad" baton to him. When Shamato finally takes the baton back, the result is bloody and somewhat surprising. Not only does Shamato confront his abuser, but he asserts his fatherly role via several brutal acts of violence against his own family. These acts provide an incredible catharsis for him and the viewer, and represent a full reversal of the "Stupid Dad" genre.
Enthusiasts for Fred and Rose West (I know you're out there!) and the Moors Murderers (you, too!) will find much gristle to chew on here.
The Third Window Films Blu-ray of Cold Fish is a stellar presentation of the work.