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Wednesday, May 2, 2001

Artcore

In the realm of the explicit


There's a scene in "Boogie Nights" in which porno director Jack Horner, played by Burt Reynolds, spells out his life dream: to make a "real movie" with hardcore action, something with a story that would make people want to stay beyond the money shot to find out how it ends.

For Jack, and for most real-life directors as well, this turns out to be a pipe dream. True, there was a brief period in the liberated '70s when porn flirted with mainstream acceptance ("Deep Throat," "The Story of O") and art cinema flirted with sexually explicit content ("Last Tango in Paris," "In the Realm of the Senses"). But as "Boogie Nights" pointed out, the video player's fast-forward button swiftly obliterated porn's need for a story line. And censorship and the increasingly conservative climate of the '80s soon put an end to art cinema's experiments. Meanwhile, filmmakers found that the new NC-17 (no children under 17) rating in the U.S. was as bad as the old "X," a scarlet letter that automatically precluded films from advertising in most media or screenings in most theaters.

Lee Sang Hyun and Kim Tae Yeon in "Lies"
Caroline Ducey in "Romance"
Aso Mayu in "I.K.U."
Karen Bach and Rafaella Anderson in "Baise-Moi"

These days, though, it looks like "artcore" is undergoing a revival, as many serious directors -- led by the French -- bust taboos and explore sexual themes with strong content. Coincidentally, several of the most notorious artcore films of late are opening back-to-back in Tokyo this spring: Whether it's the bedroom philosophy of "Romance," the punk sex and violence of "Baise-moi," the raw S/M affair of "Lies" or the psychedelic sci-fi excess of "I.K.U.," there is something for any stripe of voyeur.

The problem with sex in porno movies is that it's antiromantic: plastic, professional, impersonal. Pornography, as defined succinctly by "Romance's" director Catherine Breillat, is "the sexual act taken entirely out of context and made into a product for consumption." But one could also say that porn, as a genre, exists primarily because moralists have banished the sexual act -- in all its sweaty glory -- from "normal" films.

Artcore may be pornographic, but it's not porn. Porno is sex for sex's sake; artcore is sex for story's sake. Artcore posits the idea that sexuality -- as much as any other aspect of human character -- contains stories worth exploring, and sometimes the only way to do that is to get down and dirty. Sex in cinema usually comes on as either lowbrow turn-on or highbrow transgression; few directors, however, are able to resist seeing it as a marketing ploy and instead examine it for what it is: an overpowering part of our lives and psyches.

Woman on top

The most potent distillation of this approach is Breillat's "Romance," a cerebral reverie in which casually graphic sex is the fuel for long, self-exploratory voice-overs by the film's heroine, Marie. Controversially, the film includes scenes in which actress Caroline Ducey is clearly seen to be having sex with Italian porn actor Rocco Siffredi and in which she's roped up for real in bondage.

Some have called this gratuitous, but the controlled use of verite here adds an undeniable charge to the film. When Marie bursts into tears after her first bondage session and her partner catches her in his arms, turning from cruel to concerned, it's a spellbinding moment.

Marie's crisis is rooted in her sexual urges; actress Ducey has boldly gone as far into a character as you can go, seeking to challenge the viewer with the often uncomfortable realities of sex. Should she be criticized for this, or should we instead note the hypocrisy of viewers who demand assurance that the sex they view isn't "real"?

Breillat has always been a realist. Her best-known film -- "36 Fillette" -- was a frank study in the messy and misguided way in which virginity is often lost. Breillat's entire career has focused on nonidealized female experiences of sex and their meaning. "Romance" is her most uncompromising work yet, a revelatory portrait of sexual self-revelation through self-degradation. In this aspect, Breillat's film somewhat recalls Pauline Reage's literary porn, "Story of O." But while O's ultimate understanding was that surrender is bliss, Marie ends up in a very different space, free of the control of men and her own need to define herself through sex.

Girls just wanna have guns

"Baise-moi" ("Rape Me" is the official English title) stakes out a very similar space, but with a much more outrageous, riot-grrrl approach. Directors Virginie Despentes and Coralie Trinh Thi are themselves ex-porn stars, and they cast two younger porn actresses as their leads and have them engage in explicit sex onscreen. Their aim is to present women who -- willingly or reluctantly -- are defined by their sexuality and stigmatized for it.

"Baise-moi's" two heroines are chewed up and spat out by society, sex workers who have nothing but bad men in their lives. When they're well and truly fed up, they do what guys usually do in an outlaws-on-the-lam flick -- hit the road, pick up guns and start shooting everyone who gets in their way. You don't have to be a Freudian psychoanalyst to realize that the handgun -- along with the electric guitar and the motorcycle -- is one of the most powerful symbols of phallic displacement in modern society.

What "Baise-moi" tries to show -- in a controversial pairing of a sex spree with a killing spree -- is that once the women have guns (i.e. masculine power), they are free to enjoy themselves sexually. The fear of men -- of being slapped around by boyfriends, abused by tricks or raped by thugs -- disappears with the ability to kill them. ("Romance's" Marie, on the other hand, conquers this fear by simply refusing to feel shame.)

This is fine in theory, but the girls kill women too, and for no good reason. "Baise-moi" winds up convoluting its argument, squandering its brutally realist start until there's nothing left but the cartoon nihilism of "Faster, Pussycat! Kill! Kill!" How else can one view the penultimate scene, where the girls blow away every customer in a brothel, dispensing the most piggish male with a shot where the sun don't shine?

Out of sight

It was all a bit too much for French officialdom, however, and "Baise-moi" was banned within a week of opening. It's easy to blame the patriarchy, but coming not long after a much-reported spree killing in France inspired by "Natural Born Killers," perhaps it was the violence more than the sex that was deemed inflammatory.

Here in Japan, it seems almost any content is acceptable to the censors these days, provided they can mask the naughty bits with digital mosaics. Joining "Baise-moi" in being released uncut here is Korean director Jang Sun Woo's "Lies," which was unsurprisingly banned in his home country.

"Lies" was, in fact, deliberately made to provoke the censors: Close to 90 percent of the film's content consists of sex scenes, involving an 18-year-old high school girl and a 38-year-old artist. If that wasn't bad enough for a conservatively Confucian society, Jang's fly-on-the-wall style of shooting adds to the seemingly for-real feel of the encounters between the two actors (whose characters uncomfortably parallel their "real" selves). Further complicating matters is the kinky nature of their affair, which includes buggery and some painful-looking S/M lashings; Jang has even let it drop in interviews that the actors "could enjoy" the floggings.

While with this film Jang seeks to transgress established notions of decency -- as he did with his street-kid flick "Timeless Bottomless Bad Movie" -- he does more than just give viewers a thwack in the rear. Jang unflinchingly stares down the sexual dynamics on display and follows their spiral from innocent play to games of power and control. Like Nigisa Oshima's "Realm of the Senses," this is almost too intense to be erotic; the sex becomes obsessive and grueling to watch.

Porn again

Alone among these films, "I.K.U." sets out to titillate. It makes no bones about its approach: It's billed as "Japanese sci-fi porno," and porno it is, albeit director Shu Lea Cheang's sensibilities make it unique to the genre. "I.K.U." is heavily art-directed, with lots of trippy set design and computer graphics, an experimental soundtrack by Hoppy Kamiyama and enough gay-straight mix-'n'-match to confound the normal consumer of AV cinema.

But even though local producer Uplink shot this as hardcore in Tokyo (even getting raided on location by the vice squad), it only released it locally in a heavily mosaiced version. Considering that Uplink fought a bitter battle for its right to show Derek Jarman films uncut, this does seem a bit surprising.

Or perhaps it's a reflection of the film's commercial priorities. While "I.K.U." is a lot of fun -- one gets the sense that this will be a cult classic, the "Barbarella" of its day -- it also illustrates the problems in making a film with f**king. Once you cross a certain line in what you deem to show, you are caught between a rock and a hard place: Either tone down the sex to allow the film to play in "normal" cinemas, or pump up the action to keep the porn punters satisfied.

"I.K.U." chose the latter, at the expense of story and character, and wound up as little more than a series of wham-bams (which are, admittedly, pretty hot). The dialogue, in particular, is all too close to porn-movie standard: "Faster, harder, softer, motto motto ooh-aah-ah . . . " Cheang has claimed that she sought to make an explicitly sex-centered film, but at the same time she said she wanted to present ideas on cyber-eroticism, subvert gay/straight expectations and deftly parody "Blade Runner." It seems like everything but the sex was circumcised from the final cut, though. "I.K.U.," like Jack Horner's repertoire, ultimately falls back on the money shots.

All the films mentioned here, for better or worse, found their merits overshadowed by the "scandal" surrounding their frank depiction of carnality. It seems like a vicious circle: Until we get better films about sex, there will always be a stigma around graphic content. But as long as the stigma remains, serious artists like Jang or Breillat will find their works on sexuality under attack.

True, the controversy can be spun successfully -- most banned works ripen into a mature notoriety -- but when the provocation becomes intentional, it ends up as just more button-pushing excess, a trap into which "Baise-moi" neatly falls. Perhaps this is why the best works dealing with sexuality tend to be bummers -- it's the only way they can avoid being called cheap thrills. In that regard, "I.K.U." almost comes as some welcome comic relief.


Romance

Rating: * * * *Director: Catherine Breillat Running time: 99 minutes Language: FrenchOpens in June

Young schoolteacher Marie (Caroline Ducey) is frustrated when her lover Paul (Sagamore Stevenin) refuses to respond to her in bed. Seeking something between revenge and relief, she embarks on a series of flings: with a pickup named Paolo (Italian porn star Rocco Siffredi); the school principal, Robert (Francois Berleand), who likes to tie her up; and a random encounter on the street that gets out of hand. Paul finally responds to Marie, but it seems too little too late . . .


Baise-moi

Rating: * * * Directors: Virginie Despentes and Coralie Trinh Thi Running time: 74 minutes Language: FrenchNow showing

"I won't make any excuses." So says Nadine (Karen Bach), a jaded prostitute who abruptly kills her annoying roommate. She hits the road with Manu (Rafaella Anderson), who has just killed her boyfriend because he called her a "whore" for getting raped. Imagine a hardcore version of "Thelma and Louise," directed by Quentin Tarantino, and then up the body count. The girls kill everyone they meet, except the few guys who give them good sex, which might be the film's ultimate message.


Lies

Rating: * * 1/2Director: Jang Sun Woo Running time: 108 minutes Language: KoreanNow showing

High school student Y (Kim Tae Yeon) impulsively offers herself to older -- and married -- artist J (Lee Sang Hyun). After an initial meeting in a love hotel where he deflowers her in three separate ways, the two embark on a torrid affair in which Y agrees to be whipped by J. When Y's brother discovers their affair, the lovers hit the road to escape his wrath. After a while, the tables turn, and Y becomes the dominant partner, sexually and emotionally; it is she who will determine the affair's outcome.


I.K.U.

Rating: * * *Director: Shu Lea Cheang Running time: 74 minutes Language: Japanese and EnglishNow showing

Following the age-old porn strategy of borrowing story lines from "real movies," "I.K.U." plays as a parody version of "Blade Runner." Reiko is a mizushobai (water trade) replicant, programmed to wander around future Tokyo data-hunting sexual experience. Her partners' orgasms are stored electronically (data rape?) then sold to punters in search of a "sex high." A chameleonlike replicant, Reiko is able to take on the form most appealing to anyone she encounters, and she's played in the film by seven different actresses. Pick your pleasure.



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