Compared to the previous film, the production values here just scream out at you with its opulence from the opening scene , from its colourful sets and gaudy characters leaping out with a compere introducing some characters and acts in a strange circus indeed. Written and directed by Sion Sono, I have only had one experience with his Noriko's Dinner Table, and had primed myself for yet another tale of the bizarre, and one that touches on his pet subject, the erosion of identity and values in a traditional Japanese family.
This one though, had Sick written all over it, especially with the premise Sion had started off with. We are painted the picture of a perfect, rich household of three, before dad Gozo (Fumie Nakashima) starts to hatch an evil idea of hiding his daughter Mitsuko (Rie Kuwana / Mai Takahashi playing different age groups) in a specially designed cello case with a peephole, which he puts in the master bedroom in order for Mitsuko to learn the art of making love. Needless to say, throw in child sexual abuse, and a mother Sayuri (Masumi Miyazaki in a comeback role) who's just compelled to peep from the same case, and things are just not what they seem.
It gets even sicker through the complication of emotions and standing within the household, where Sayuri gets jealous with the attention that her child is getting from her husband, and a deadly tussle ensued, resulting in a guilt trip which Mitsuko, now assuming fully the role of a wife, starts to look at herself having the physical make up of a fully grown woman, taking the appearance of her mother. If you've made it to this point, that's great, since it's probably nothing more than a severely dysfunctional family being put on screen in an examination of taboo issues like incest.
Then Sion starts to turn things over our heads, with this seemingly one-track narrative being nothing more than the storyline of the paralyzed novelist Taeko (also played by Masumi Miyazaki), which makes one wonder if what we've seen thus far is but a figment of her imagination of yet another potential bestseller, or there's something more than meets the eye especially to her paralysis. Sion then begins to cut forwards and backwards a lot more, resulting in a tale that could go either way, depending on whether you're buying the story in the novel as a fantasy, or rooted in reality. The introduction of Taeko's androgynous assistant Yuji (Issei Ishida) also helped made this particular act stranger than usual, though you're likely to come off with a suspicion that he's got a lot more to do with Taeko than it seemed.
If you're comfortable enough with the inclusion on this act, then the last one that Sion throws at you, in an effort to gel this weird mother-daughter dynamics, will be the litmus test for each individual whether you like the film or not. To me, I thought it was fine, though confusion can arise because now all three arcs start to mash up against one another, and the lines between fantasy and reality will very much depend on which angle you prefer to adopt. I'd go for how sexual abuse will really warp a young, impressionable child's mind, and turn it into a long drawn out tale of mystery and revenge. Sion adds to the confusion through the use of perspectives, having different characters assume roles that we've seen before, and when you try to logically work things out, in comes the scenes of gore and torture for horror classification.
Don't be put off too early by Strange Circus, as there is enough material on hand to warrant multiple viewings just to test out the other hypotheses on who's actually who, and who actually did what. As mentioned, the production values are just great, though some scenes, or the thought of it since they happen off-screen, would make you nausea. Different layers being presented independently, then rolled together into one, makes Strange Circus quite a challenge to sit through, but with a satisfying payoff at the end.