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This review is from: Visitor Q [DVD]  (DVD)
'Visitor Q' was my second foray into the 'sinister works' of infamaous Japanese director Takashi Miike. The first was with the hugely underwhelming, but critically applauded 'Audition'. I'm glad to say 'Visitor Q' is a vast improvement.
So, like, here's what it's about: the movie revolves around an extremely dysfunctional, but otherwise typical Japanese family. The father is a journalist, the wife is a homemaker, and the children are students- university and school. However, each character is a complete inversion of the idealistic Japanese role they represent. The father is an emasculated, broken man; the wife is a disorganized, selfish mother; the daughter is an incestuous whore; and the son is a violent bully, who regularly beats his mother. Miike doesn't so much display the characters, as he does use them. The characters are never developed, and the viewer is never assaulted with their irrelevant histories. This is because Miike isn't interested in characterization, but instead in using these characters as vessels to convey the themes of the film (which we'll get into later). Each character is the broken opposite of everything that they should be. Each character is an archetype of the role they represent. And each of these characters are dramatically changed in surrealist, shocking sequences, that have some critics calling this movie nothing more than a 'shockumentary'.
Miike's narrative flows through the enigmatic Visitor Q; a young man who enters the family household after covertly assaulting the father figure then, audaciously, helping him home. Some could choose to see this in a symbolic sense: Visitor Q overpowers the father, and then becomes the head of his household. As each character continues with their life, Visitor Q interjects himself into their relationships, without ever forcing change. Instead, through conversation with each of the characters, they are spurred into realization then radical change. As the film progresses, however, it could be argued that Visitor Q assumes the role of every member of the family: becoming the mother to the son, the son to the mother, etc. Let's explore the father and the mother:
The father's problem is his emasculation. We are shown the father be humiliated by his boss, sexually shamed by thugs, unable to help his child, and entirely unsuccessful in his job. Through the movie, Visitor Q's interjection results in the father finally taking control of his life again, although in an incredible violent and destructive way, such as murder and necrophilia. These are merely visual metaphors of course, to show the return of his ability to assert himself. I think the father's story of change is one of the weaker points of the movie however, as many of the metaphors are completely overpowered by the grotesque nature of the scenes that depict them.
The mother's story is much more successfully portrayed. She begins as a heroin addict who is entirely unable to control her son or keep her family organized, and who is also unable to sexual gratify her husband. One of the most powerful scenes in the film is when Visitor Q helps the mother discover her ability to lactate, symbolic of her rediscovering the pleasures of motherhood, and, of course one of the ending scenes of the movie, when her teenage children are seen suckling at her teat.
This plethora of shocking images is too much for some critics, whom argue that these scenes are unnecessary and OTT. These showcases may be grizzly, but they add a surreal aspect to the film, which creates a powerful gravitas and makes the themes in the movie seem horrifically important, which one would assume Miike believes them to be. The critics would have perhaps been better directed to attack the movie's overly convoluted narrative, which attempts to constantly explore many different themes in as a superfluous manner as possible.
The film tackles many themes, of which the dysfunction of the family we have already explored. However, the film actually goes further. It seems to say that without a functional family, it's impossible to function in society. Or perhaps without success in society, it's impossible to be happy in the family? Either way you perceive the message of the movie, it's not likely that everyone will agree with the roles each member of the family strives to be. The role that is implicitly stated that they should be, i.e. the mother a housewife, etc.
Then of course there is Visitor Q himself: an extremely puzzling character. What is it that he represents? Well, no one can really say for certain, but there are some facts can be examined. Visitor Q clearly mirrors the mysterious stranger in Pier Paolo Pasolini's 'Teorema'. And it's widely accepted that this Mysterious Stranger represents the figure of Christ in that movie, affecting each member of the family he comes to stay with in a positive way, comparable to the effects of Religion. Visitor Q clearly doesn't represent religion, but he does mirror the Mysterious Stranger. He comes in and he destroys the family's old way of life, helping them see the proverbial light. Miike deserves veneration for his ability to weave such a complexly structured plot whilst using Pasolini's structure to meet his own ends. But like 'Teorema' has other subplots, as does Visitor Q. Visitor Q always has a handheld camera, recording all of the events in the household; the father is humiliated on camera, the father even records his own son being humiliated on camera for a documentary. The movie is also entirely filmed with digital cameras, which really lends the film a documentary feel; sometimes the cameramen and soundmen are even visible in some scene of the movie. Is this on purpose? Perhaps not, but I find it hard to believe otherwise considering Miike's considerable history in the industry. The whole film seems to have an aversion to reality television, or perhaps it just has a penchant for voyeurism?
The setting and cinematography contrast so starkly with the surrealist scenes and script of the movie that it disorientates the viewer. I can't recall any other movie that blends surrealism and gritty realism so well. The desolate, dank, mise-en-scene is just brilliant. It creates such a horrible tone for the film. This is truly how setting should be used in a film. An oppressive atmosphere is established through the small, cluttered house. This film is extremely misanthropic and morbid, and the setting reinforces that.
So, if we accept that the movie does have artistic merit, then the question is begged, are the gruesome scenes really required to make the point Miike is striving to establish? Well, in thinking about this, I was reminded of Von Trier's Antichrist and Moodysson's Hole in my Heart (a film which is extremely similar to this cinematically). It was hard for me to rate Antichrist, because it was a gorgeous film, yet confused in its themes and narrative. However, Visitor Q, I believe, as contrived as it is, delivers thematically more than Antichrist does. And I think, as I said earlier, that the shocking scenes draw attention and add gravitas to important parts of the film. But, unfortunately, the film sometimes offers shocking scenes that overshadow the point they are trying to make, although, these scenes do add Takashi Miike's trademark black humour.
To conclude: Visitor Q is an enthusiastic film, that although stellar, isn't quite able to deliver on all of the symbolism strewn throughout the movie, which unfortunately leaves a lot of red herrings and some needlessly shocking scenes. It does, however, manage to attack reality TV, the disintegration of the family and the decay of society efficiently and artistically.
It is because of the exceptional atmosphere, smart narrative, spectacularly gritty realism, which is also somehow extremely surrealistic, and most importantly an attempt at artistically evaluating society through the cinematic lens that I rate this film quite so highly. Quite clear that this movie is sometimes needlessly and appallingly gruesome, but still, it is much smarter than most other movies you'll see, from any era in cinematic history.
And, just as a side note, I don't understand why people rate these types of movies so high simply because they are gruesome and shocking. For a movie to be 'gruesome' and 'shocking' there actually needs to be justification, in my opinion. The sum of the movie should not be its most shocking scenes, this in itself is what the movie rails against: voyeurism.