Saturday, April 26, 2008

Miike Marathon :: Visitor Q (2001)

"Nothing is true; everything is permitted." These, according to the legend, were the last words of Hassan i Sabbah. As a theory of ethics or as an ethos, such words lead to decadence and anarchy and should, I believe, be strongly opposed by all who are sane. As a theory of art, however, they may have merit, though I'm sure art is not what Sabbah had in mind when he uttered them. In the most literal sense, nothing in art is true. This is what Plato meant when he banished the poets from his ideal republic. Plato had correctly noticed that fiction and poetry, though beautiful and often moving, are lies; however, they not the kinds of morally lapsing lies that he might have thought they were. Art, by lying, can tell us the truth. Poetic or artistic lies, freed from the restraints of empirical objectivity, penetrate deeper into the truth of things than any credible account of reality ever can. An allegory explains the universe; a simile reveals a thing's true nature; a metaphor cuts to the quick. When we see art in such terms, as a counter to reality that in fact reveals reality to us in new and important ways, it becomes clear that, indeed, everything is permitted, for if we accept that, in a very literal sense, nothing is true in art than everything in fact becomes on occasion for metaphor.

But what, you say, has all this to do with Takashi Miike and Visitor Q, of which, I presume, most people have not heard and are not likely to ever see? Well, I shall tell you. The above is a justification or sorts for the ridiculous parade of obscenities and horrors you will encounter if you chose to watch Visitor Q. If you are not convinced that everything is permitted in the service of art than you should probably avoid this film because it will likely shock into a coma or send you out into an apoplectic rage in which you will think it wise to tighten the laws governing censorship (which, as you might imagine, does not think everything is permitted).

Visitor Q is a family movie, or rather it is a movie about a family. This particular family, however, is in quite a lot of trouble. The father, a disgraced reporter looking to make a documentary on "young people today," goes to his prostitute daughter for material and ends up purchasing her services. His son, bullied by his peers, ferociously redoubles that scarring abuse upon his mother. His mother, to deal with the physical and no doubt emotional pain, turns to heroin, a habit which leads her also to prostitute herself to fetishists. In the harrowing world of Takashi Miike, this is Japan - depraved, decaying, and excremental. Into these ruinous lives enters the Visitor, a man who quite literally tries to knock some sense into this disintegrating family.

In its own way, Visitor Q is a redemption story. That it uses several murders, incest, necrophilia, rape and some of the most bizarre scenes involving breast milk in cinematic history to arrive at it only highlights the immediate need for that redemption. But don't be fooled by its seeming prurience and excess. Though it seems to play out like protracted telling of the aristocrats joke, Visitor Q is actually an example of some of the most scathing satire and sharpest black comedy you're likely ever to encounter. And I do mean ever. Unlike the pointless and pornographic images of, say, Salo, Visitor Q's extreme images are not connected with a self-immolating swan dive into the hellish flames of nihilism but are rather all connected to pressing social and familial concerns, concerns which are not only conservative and traditional but downright wholesome. That this family does not act like a family is the point; that they should act like a family is also the point; that they have no idea how to do so is once again the point. In one scene, the father, deliriously excited that his home is being destroyed by fireworks since it presents him with such an exciting moment for his documentary, yells out while taping the incident, "How am I supposed to feel? I don't know how a father should feel! But I know my family is being destroyed! So, what do you think?" It's almost too on-the-nose, but anyone who misses the levels of irony and metaphor in a movie character, himself armed with a camera, filming a scene of destruction, self-reflectively asking his own audience "what do you think?" has no business watching movies.

Miike has denied that his films are rooted in social concern or that they are metaphors for modern Japan. That's okay. George Romero tried to tell us that Dawn of the Dead was not about consumerism. (Psst... even if he didn't think it was, it was.) Some of Miike's films, like Dead or Alive and Ichi the Killer, are simply efforts in mindless, and mind-boggling, entertainment, though even they have artistic merit, dubious as that may sound to anyone who may familiar with either of those films. But a film like Visitor Q is something more than simple sensationalism. For one, it's not very entertaining, it is in fact quite sickening, if we try to see it as something other than satire. For two, the relevance of its satire and the blackness of its humour are simply too sharp to be accidental. Sure, it may offend nearly every audience that watches it but that shouldn't suggest that it is without merit. Remember, everything is permitted. In the hands of childish artist, this sort of freedom will likely result in self-destruction. In the hands of a genuine and mature artist, however, this freedom will shock, jolt and, if you let it, drop lightning bolts of serious thought into your mind. Visitor Q is such a film. Not every palate will appreciate it but those with an appetite for serious satire may find themselves enjoyably challenged by it if they dare to chew on it for a bit.

Once again, another take.

1 comment:

1minutefilmreview said...

Visitor Q is certainly one of our favorites from Miike.