has always had a long running tradition of extreme cinema. Be it
gangster films, period dramas, or horror, there has always been a
renegade group of filmmakers that have relentlessly pushed the
boundaries of taste and decency. One only need look at Nobuo Nakagawa's
"Jigoku", or just about anything by Kinji Fukasaku ("Battle
Royale") from as far back as the '60s. A curious niche that
grew out of this uninhibited time was the 'Pink Film' (or 'Roman
Porno'). These films were essentially soft-core porn that featured a
lurid focus on the psychological and sexual humiliation and torture of
women. While the genre has been around since the late 1960s, the
granddaddy of all Roman Porno films was Masaru Konuma's 1974 opus
"Hana to Hebi" (literally "Flower and Snake").
"Hana to Hebi" kick started a veritable
cottage industry for Pink cinema that survives to the present day, and
is mentioned in hushed tones amongst underground cinema aficionados as
the progenitor of high-class, socially conscious smut. The latest entry
into the genre is, quite appropriately, a remake of Konuma's film by
director Takashi Ishii. An opulent example of Japanese S&M at its
most vulgar, "Hana to Hebi" is the story of a woman's
abduction and sexual slavery at the hands of the Yakuza. Based on
Oniroku Dan's classic S&M novel, the 2004 version is an über
stylish, perverse and explicit sexual shocker.
The stunning Aya Sugimoto stars as Shizuko, a bored
and unfulfilled trophy wife of a wealthy businessman. When her husband
(a weaselly Hironobu Nomura) is blackmailed by the Yakuza, Shizuko is
sold to decrepit Oyabun Tashiro (Renji Ishibashi) as payment. Tashiro,
in turn, places Shizuko in a private S&M show for an elite audience
in order to satisfy his own unfulfilled sexual needs. This is all the
more disturbing because boss Tashiro is a 95-year old shriveled,
drooling invalid hooked to an oxygen bottle. The balance of the film
consists of Shizuko being subjected to a series of sexual and emotional
humiliation for the enjoyment of the masked audience, all of it
presented in unflinching detail by Ishii's leering camera.
The film immediately reminded me of Stanley Kubrick's
"Eyes Wide Shut," and I can only surmise that his inspiration
came at least partly from the same source material as "Hana to
Hebi". Unfortunately, what starts out as a slick, sexy thriller
ends up much like its heroine -- a dizzy, confused mess. The problem is
that once the shock and novelty of what you are seeing wears off you
realize that the movie isn't going anywhere. It's just more ropes and
hot wax and, since any semblance of story has long since been abandoned,
the last third of the movie plays like a bunch of unrelated bondage
vignettes randomly strung together. In fact, there are enough subtle
consistency problems on screen in the last act to make me suspect that
there was some indecision in the editing room.
debauchery on screen, what's most shocking is the lengths star Aya
Sugimoto agreed to go to in making the film. Much was made of Monica
Bellucci's courage in filming the brutal rape sequence in "Irreversible,"
but the level of debasement that Sugimoto endures in "Hana to
Hebi" is truly amazing. Not only does she spend roughly 75% of her
screen time naked, she's usually in a compromising position while being
humiliated. What makes it all the more perplexing is that Sugimoto is
actually a rather famous professional Tango dancer, not to mention a
model, singer and TV personality. With such a strong 'legitimate'
artistic resume, it's baffling why she would take the role in the first
place. Twisted as it may sound, I'm really looking forward to seeing the
'Making of...' segment on the DVD.
A film like "Hana to Hebi" is tough to assign
a movie grade. The subject matter is repellant and the despicable and
voyeuristic way in which Ishii films the story is unsettling and
shocking. However, the film looks fabulous and, much to the viewers'
chagrin, Ishii manages to make all the sexploitation and abused skin on
display titillating. In the end, "Hana to Hebi" gets a very
guarded recommendation, as although it's by no means meant for the
casual viewer, even most seasoned cinephiles will find the film not
their cup of tea. If you are curious, bring an open mind and a strong
constitution, and prepare to have your buttons pushed.