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Wednesday, May 4, 2005

The muse tangled up in desire

Hana to Hebi 2

Rating: * * * 1/2 (out of 5)
Director: Takashi Ishii
Running time: 113 minutes
Language: Japanese
Opens May 14
[See Japan Times movie listings]

There are films one cannot write about in a family publication -- and Takashi Ishii's "Hana to Hebi 2 (Flower and Snake 2)" is right on the borderline. It is a real story about a swirling triangle of desire, jealousy and obsession. It has talented actors, led by Aya Sugimoto, Kenichi Endo and Jo Shishido, as well as a talented director, Takashi Ishii, whose films have won domestic awards and been widely screened abroad.

News photo
Kenichi Endo and Aya Sugimoto in "Hana to Hebi 2"

At the same time, like "Hana to Hebi" (Flower and Snake)" (2004), which also starred Sugimoto and was directed by Ishii, the film is also a full-frontal plunge into the world of S&M. In short, it is about a mature, well-off, sexually frustrated woman (Sugimoto) discovering the joys of being beaten, bound and abused by a drunken artist (Endo) with a bad temper and poor grooming habits.

Feeling your hackles rising already? Frankly, I don't blame you. Walking out after a screening at Toei, I felt an intense need for a breath of fresh air. And not only because I failed to share the characters' delight in tying and binding.

Ishii has long been an explorer of the dark side of human nature, sexual or otherwise. His heroes -- from Masatoshi Nagase's young drifter in "Shindemoii (Original Sin)" (1992) to Riona Hazuki's sassy assassin in "Kuroi no Tenshi Vol. 1 (The Black Angel)" (1995) -- pursue their objects of affection or rage with a hot, intense ardor. In "Hana to Hebi 2," the three central characters don't merely experiment with violent, degrading sex (like Tom Cruise in "Eyes Wide Shut"); they plunge into it, with hardly a letup and Ishii, we feel, is getting more than a professional tingle filming their antics.

But unlike pornographers intent only on bringing male fantasies to life, with the erotic fakery laughably obvious, Ishii takes pains to establish characters, motives and relationships. His camera may verge on the voyeuristic, with its nervous shifting and probing for the most nakedly revealing angle, but he is also more interested in the humanistic whys than the mechanistic hows. He gazes at his heroine's voluntary sexual slavery with an unblinking (and, let's be honest, lecherous) directness, but he also celebrates her beauty, both clothed and unclothed. He exploits her, but he also likes and admires her, holding none of her extreme erotic adventures against her. At the end, she regains her dignity and poise.

This bifurcated stance may strike some as Ishii's attempt to paint lipstick on the pig of his piggishness, but having followed his work since his 1992 breakthrough "Shindemoii," I think he is sincere enough in presenting the human complexity of the S&M transaction, while admitting his own less-than-objective interest.

His heroine, Shizuko (Sugimoto), is the wife of Toyama (Shishido), a wealthy, elderly art critic and dealer. She also happens to be half his age, and though she claims not to be bothered by his impotence, she is secretly longing for something different. Meanwhile Toyama is feeling a secret stirring of his own -- for the S&M images on his computer screen.

The story proper begins when Toyama sends Shizuko to Paris to evaluate the work of Ikegami (Endo), an artist he is sponsoring, but who has produced little work. She is overjoyed to be off on her own, especially to Paris, that most stimulating of cities. When she meets Ikegami, however, she gets a stimulus of another kind. Living in a tiny apartment, in the midst of squalor and canvases, he is the artist as wild man, in a bad mood and a torn, dirty sweater. (He also is dallying with a lithesome young model, who turns out to be his sister.)

Slugging wine straight from the bottle, he glowers at her as she riffles through his canvases. She senses his talent and something else -- a dangerous sexual heat. He senses something too -- her curiosity and desire. When he makes his move, or rather, his assault, she fends him off, but instead of exiting his room in a rage, she leaves flushed with excitement. Instead of losing his patron, Ikegami finds himself with a new commission.

No surprise, then, that Shizuko returns and consummates what she and Ikegami began. No surprise, too, that he breaks out the ropes and quickly breaks down her resistance. The resulting session on an old brass bed, in front of a large mirror, leaves absolutely nothing to the imagination. It does, however, inspire Ikegami to take dozens of digital photos -- and use them as the basis for a new painting. Meanwhile, Shizuko feels that she has a purpose beyond mere sexual release, that she is, not just a plaything, but a muse.

Once the painting is done, in a hyper-realistic style that reveals every freckle, Shizuko intends to take it back to Japan, but Ikegami, after starving for so many years, wants to put it on the local black market and learn its value. Then Ikegami's sister (Mieko Arai) tells Shizuko about an auction for such items, held at a chateau outside Paris. She decides to go -- and what she sees and experiences there shocks her more than anything even the ingenious Ikegami could devise.

A former idol who later built a career as an actress and tango dancer, Sugimoto deserves to be called gutsy for her work in "Hana to Hebi 2." She not only undergoes contortions that would have the average linebacker screaming for mercy, she delivers an unbridled performance that expresses pathos as well as pain. As the artist, Endo is his usual explosive but somehow sympathetic self. As the cuckolded Toyama, Shishido shows that, after nearly 300 screen appearances over five decades, he is still a potent force, though his character is the saddest of all. More than any of the others, Toyama feels the ache of forbidden desire -- and impossibility, this side of the grave, of ever fulfilling it.

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