Sunday, 25 April 2010

In the Realm of the Senses (Ai no corrida) (1976)

***WARNING: lots of spoilers. Don't read if you want a surprise***

Synopsis: Japanese erotic art-house film about a man and one of his employees having an obsessive sexual relationship ending in a Bobbitt style crescendo.

Another one that I missed at BFI Southbank, I finally caught up with this controversial classic, based on a real life case. This is a fairly claustrophobic film in that you really are focusing on just the two leads and their strange relationship.

We start off in 1930's Japan, in a hotel owned by a man (Kichizo) and his family, and meet their female employees, one of whom, Sada, is an ex-prostitute trying to earn a respectable living. They soon start an all-consuming affair which sees them locking themselves away in their room and having non-stop sex.

No wonder it caused controversy on release, this film is properly pornographic with close-ups of the male lead and his tumescent member throughout. We also get to see what looks like actual penetration and what definitely is actual fellatio. In some ways this sort of distracts from the 'action' and in others, well, this is the action, so why not.

The other thing that probably pushed the censors over the edge is the couple's S&M antics. Their obsession with each other, (more hers than his) ends in Sada experimenting with strangulation at point of climax. As you can probably imagine this doesn't end well...

Even though the film is based on a real life case, it's not treated as a straight-to-TV movie a la The Amy Fisher Story. This is your proper art-house take on things (i.e. a lot more nudity). The film looks lovely, with many scenes almost completely symmetrical in composition. The characters' kimonos are beautiful - vividly patterned (contrasting with very dim and bland rooms) and in several shots the swishing of skirts etc. is used to great effect. The lifting of a kimono here, the parting of swathes of scarlet fabric there, all signalling the unveiling of hidden, forbidden flesh.

At one point bright red fabric (I think of another woman's kimono) fills the entire frame, symbolising vividly both sex and the (eventual) violent, bloody death of Kichizo. I suppose there is something to be said for the eastern take on sex and its obsessive link with violence and death. This film certainly reminded me a little of Ang Lee's Lust, Caution in which a torrid affair is somewhat characterised by sadism.

What both films do have in common is that the sexual relationship is also a power relationship. In Senses, Sada is wildly jealous of Kichizo and his wife's relationship (even though she too is married). She makes him swear allegiance to her and promises revenge if Kichizo should ever sleep with his wife again. The phrase 'possession is nine tenths of the law' kept springing to mind. It's almost as if Sada wants to devour and be devoured by her lover; she wants him almost constantly, even suggesting that he urinate whilst making love so that they won't let even basic bodily functions come (no pun intended) between them.

In the end, she claims possession in the most mind-boggling, psychopathically logical way by strangling him as he ejaculates and then cutting off his genitals (come on, we've all done it...). As you got used to her threats all the way through the film, you think by the end, well, she did warn him. For Kichizo's part, he goes along with Sada's demands (even the strangulation). He is completely submissive to her every whim, but does throw in a few of his own odd requests along the way.

In the end you're left wondering - who really had the upper hand? Sada certainly wins on points by killing then castrating her lover, but she does this out of a desperate belief that she will never fully own/possess him. All in all a very sorry tale.

See also: Lust, Caution.

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