A review requested by STinG, with thanks to supporting Alternate Ending as a donor through Patreon.

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2008's Love Exposure is 237 minutes long, and it somehow manages to need every one of them. In a film made up out of one provocation after another, the running time is, to be sure, one of the most flippant "fuck you" provocations of them all: given the content (an 18-year-old Catholic boy falls into making a living by taking upskirt photos of young women, and falls desperately in love with one of his targets), how dare writer-director Sono Sion stretch it to such unfathomable lengths? Can there possibly be a reason for this to have such a distended running time? The only way to find out is to watch it!

Well, I've watched it, and I remain undecided. But one thing is beyond dispute: Love Exposure sure is an enormous quantity of movie, and while I was being battered and amused and put off and just plain worn out by Sono's non-stop array of plotlines, genres, stylistic flourishes, philosophical notions, and boner jokes, one thing that absolutely never happened, I never once got bored.

I cannot summarise the plot. What I can do is to summarise the first hour, which feels more or less like the prologue to what follows. There's this teen boy, Honda Yu (Nishijima Takhiro), whose father, Tetsu (Watabe Atsuro), has become a Catholic priest to cope with his grief after the death of his wife, Yu's mother. This is fine for a little while, until one of Tetsu's parishioners, a younger woman named Kaori (Watanabe Makiko), confesses that she loves him. He refuses to renounce the priesthood to marry her, but they have a brief, passionate love affair that lasts just long enough to destroy Tetsu's sense of moral certainty and rip open his lonely wounds again. This takes us a healthy chunk into the movie, a solid 20 minutes or more, and it is almost entirely spurious. This isn't Tetsu's story, nor is it Kaori's. It's Yu's story, and we have already by this point been introduced to the huge white-on-black text counting down to The Miracle that happens at the end of a very full year in the boy's life. The story of Tetsu's fall is there solely to set up Yu's reaction: he discovers that his father only perks up when he gets to absolve sinners, so being a good son, the younger Honda makes up various lurid teenage adventures. Sadly, the priest sees through this ruse immediately, and so Yu decides to throw himself into actual sin, in order to have something to make his dad happy. After a few false starts, he discovers that he has a knack for taking upskirt photos of women on the street, and though he remains steadfastly unaroused by these photos, they find enough favor among the illegal porn crowd to win Yu a reputation as being a pervert's pervert. All this culminates, at the end of that year, when Yu - dressed as a slightly older woman after having lost a bet - spots a girl his own age, Ozawa Yoko (Mitsushima Hikari), and falls in love on the spot. She does too, but with Yu disguised as "Lady Scorpion" (an unmarked homage to the Female Prisoner Scorpion series of '70s exploitation films), and Yoko already inclined to mistrust and hate men, she takes this attraction as the emergence of lesbian desires that she's never previously experienced.

This is, I need to reiterate, the set-up. Love Exposure has plenty of places to go from here, including a whole entire major character I haven't mentioned, as well as entire plotlines only hinted at in the loosest way in this opening. Hell, there are entire genres we haven't see yet, and we've already seen several. I don't quite want to say that this is a grab bag, because that implies that it's random and messy, and that's not the feeling the film offers up at all. Something big and full of stuff cannot afford to be random and messy. It is, in fact, very clearly organized - there are even title cards telling us when we reach a new chapter of the story, and every one is accompanied by a distinct change in mood, style, and narrative focus. So if I suggest that it feels like a grab bag, I'm referring to variety, not organization.

And varied it certainly is. The way Sono handles the film suggests that he's eager to share every thought he's ever had; though he'd been making movies for two decades, with his major international breakthrough Suicide Club having come out seven years prior, and he himself being 46 years old at the time of Love Exposure's release, this has the feel of a bold new artist doing a little bit of everything just in case he doesn't get to do this again. The result is a film that's constantly surprising in its energetic creativity: the first big showpiece is a lengthy sequence in which Yu's training as an upskirt photographer is shot and choreographed like a '70s Hong Kong martial arts film set to Ravel's BolΓ©ro, complete with heavily foleyed in sound effects of the cameras, being darted around like nunchucks. But if this is the first big showpiece, it's no less than the third major shift the film has undergone, from its memoiristic opening to the most easygoing slice-of-life approach to the early scenes focused on Yu. And as the film advances, it will ad rat-a-tat montage sequences, dreamy slowed-down moments of emotional intensity, and several extravagantly bloody sequences that embrace the most disgusting, cartoon-like version of screen gore. It's deeply juvenile, even obnoxiously so, a celebration of exploitation films that makes no apologies for its own warped sense of humor and obsessions with sex and violence; but it seems certain that a mature version of the film wouldn't have nearly so much energy; this is a film where it seems clear that saying "no" to any idea that crossed his mind would have cost Sono all the momentum that makes this such a wild ride.

This is not to say that the whole film is being sledgehammered at us. In fact, there is some awfully subtle filmmaking going on, including some very smart cross-cutting that reveals, through things like color temperature and angles, the gradations in feeling between Yu and Yoko. When it rewinds at a certain to show us plot elements from the other side, it shifts perspectives gently enough that it doesn't even register at first. And for all that the actors are playing big gigantic notions of teenage love and lust, on top of the other big gigantic things they're playing, there are some very lovely small moments for both leads, where the basic emotional truths that Sono is trying to get at come to the foreground.

For that's basically what this all doing, I think. The film is "about" a great many things: adolescent horniness and identify confusion is an obvious one, and part of the strategy it uses is to treat everything with the same overcooked feverish intensity that hormonal teenagers feel about everything. If every single moment of the film feels like the most fervently underscored and bolded, played loudly and with exaggerated angles and bright colors, it is only getting at the way that every moment feels like the most important moment in human history to a sufficiently amped-up teen. The film's genius lies in coming up with enough different ways to present this intensity that it never feels repetitive, but always somehow remains fresh throughout all four hours of the running time.

This isn't to say that it doesn't ebb and flow. For my tastes, the film is best in its first hour, when it's still darting around looking for a plot, and thus feel a bit more energetic and unpredictable, and in its last hour, when it starts to focus in on the bigger picture than just Yu and Yoko's increasingly strange interactions: as it implies right at the beginning, one of its other big fascinations is with the need for humans to have something to believe in - religion, a political cause, romance, it almost doesn't matter, as long as it's bigger than the individual. The flip side being that these beliefs invariably break the believer, making demands that go beyond reason and sustainability, and Love Exposure's final run of scenes thrive on this unresolvable tension. It's a film about being overwhelmed, as much as it's an overwhelming film, and it's the most excitingly exhausting kind of too much, the kind that's so fearless that it can help but be compelling.