Such a crazy film has to be artistically captivating to offset exploitations shadowy eclipse. And, with such lurid visual grandiose and aggressive narrative from director Sion Sono, it manages to raise above that label just enough to retain that gritty disgust looming in its pit. Strap in for one hell of a rollercoaster ride, because all the odd twists and turns within Strange Circus could possible induce whiplash.
As Strange Circus opens, a host of ornately dressed jesters and performers engulf a darkened club's sumptuously lit stage. The strange circus opens, asking for volunteers to participate in the festivities. When no one lifts a hand to be chosen as a participant in seemingly demented proceedings, a young girl is ushered atop the stage, peering eyes gleaming upon her presence amidst the lights. Thus would begin the dreadful decline for young Mitsuko.
As her life begins to flash before her eyes while amidst these motley clowns, so starts her spiraling chain of misfortune. After accidentally walking in on her parents making love, Mitsuko escapes quickly to divert her eyes. Her utterly demented father sees such a moment fit for her to be deflowered of her innocence. A love triangle of ludicrous proportions develops amidst a doomed family dynamic. Jealousy rears its ugly head as fighting ensues between the once peaceful mother and daughter. This relentless onslaught of corrosive eroticism rivals some of the worst nightmares conceivable.
Is this all the penmanship of Taeko, an acclaimed novelist? She'd allow everyone to believe it's a blend of fantasy ... with a pinch of reality. Surrounded by editors and assistants, one being a new, particularly effeminate male that's piqued her interest, Taeko scribbles the last bits of Mitsuko's story. Squeaking in her wheelchair across the room, she eyes her onlookers for approval of her recent piece of literature. Notoriously deranged, as if not obvious from her outrageous tale, Taeko invites the newly enamored assistant into her demented life. This new kid starts a journey into the mind of Taeko to unfold all of the dirty secrets gathering within her soiled psyche.
Have faith that this very odd tale gets much more unusual. It's all crafted from the same fabric that nightmares reside within. Strange Circus's peculiar narrative works quite well to its favor. The countless plot coils all seem moderately unforeseeable, mainly because such ugly resolutions fail to surface within the mind. They are thoughts that might land someone in jail or a mental institution. Instead of letting these thoughts seep in, let the film itself do the thinking as a separate, malign entity.
While director Sono's erotically grotesque tale engages the mind, the stunning cinematography more than occupies the eyes. It's quite possible to get lost in the visual sumptuousness of this flick because it echoes the fanciful nature of the narrative. Strange Circus is blessed with a starkly gorgeous style that's just as ornately bizarre as the content. The family's home has such exquisite architecture that provides a myriad of memorable, striking angles. Most of the winning elements packed into Strange Circus lie within its uncomfortably resonant atmosphere. From the start, it'll induce a tense, gross feeling that will stick like gum underneath a shoe. And, much like the sticky substance grasping to the sole, the more Strange Circus is picked at and focused on, the more adhesive and further expanded it gets.
Generally, the character performances keep up with the break neck story; however, much of the potency lies within the insatiable script that feeds upon the characters. It'd be hard pressed to portray such a garish narrative without a similar brooding persona. Masumi Miyazaki manages to embody this aura, while also successfully grasping a lurid eroticism that enhances the presence of the disturbed author Taeko. She's quite an interesting sight to behold. There's a point in the film where the only reasonable solution as a film watcher is to try and escape the confines of the film and its cursed host of souls. However, each viewer's limit fluctuates. The question at hand is whether the film will ease its grasp once this point arrives.
Experiencing Strange Circus is akin to a ride with a motion sickness label plastered on the gate. Afterwards, a feeling is left that is similar to being grabbed by the spine and shaken until movement ceases. Whether that's enjoyable or not is highly subjective. There's a fine line between a mind-bending horror film's capacity for absorption and for enjoyment, and this film trots predominately on the side of absorption. Much like trying to divert eyesight from a train wreck, Strange Circus shockingly rampant nature is something that's unnervingly difficult to peel from, or to forget.
TLA Releasing's Danger After Dark pressing of Strange Circus is presented in a clear standard keepcase with fitting coverart for the film. An interesting image of the circus performers is displayed on the right hand side underneath the disc with other TLA releases advertised on the left.
With a film as visually gripping as Strange Circus, it demands an equally high-quality transfer. This anamorphic widescreen presentation is quite vividly displayed. Strange Circus is a film rich with warm hues, ranging from brooding amber to blaring red. All of the colors presented were radiant. Detail wasn't terribly sharp, but was still quite adequately clear. A few instances of mosquito noise popped up here and there, but these instances were fairly sparse. In all, Strange Circus popped quite well through the screen.
Strange Circus comes with a Japanese Dolby Digital 5.1 track that's quite pleasant. This film isn't terribly boisterous in the sound department. However, where it truly succeeds is with the alluringly creepy score. Each note of the haunting musical track rang true through the surround presentation. Dialogue was also quite clear and crisp. Though it didn't use the surround and subwoofer channels to a terribly high level, the audio portion of this film needs only float along with the visuals and narrative – which is does quite well.
Only two extras are included with Strange Circus: A Strange Days: Making of Featurette presents numerous behind-the-scenes portions illustrating the acting emphasis and camera positioning that are so crucial to capturing these moments. Amidst these numerous snippets, cast and crew interviews are spliced within that specifically concern director Sono's thoughts and dialogue regarding the plot and the protagonist. Also inserted within this featurette are wonderfully candid portions with the lead actress Miyazaki discussing her return to acting after a hiatus. Though sporadically edited in a jerky fashion, this documentary is a nicely outspoken piece that delves into some of the deep eccentricities that these filmmakers had to endure for such a peculiar story.
A Theatrical Trailer for Strange Circus is also included that doesn't manage to reveal too many of the story's secrets before viewing.
Be forewarned. Strange Circus is a venture into the unusual. It's an engaging, shocking level of abnormality, however. Anyone who grasps an interest for Lynchian-type mind-bender films might want to give this film a shot. Even amidst the quality production, only a timid Recommendation can be given. It's a film of such a sensitive nature that it might only be worth a watch or two; for some, even less.