Normally, when a filmmaker wraps up a film series, its reasonable to expect a decisive finale. In the case of Suicide Club director Sion Sono, though, we’re talking about poet-turned-film-provocateur for whom normal is rarely part of the equation. His latest mind-boggling film, Guilty of Romance, is the conclusion to the “Trilogy of Hate” that includes the films Love Exposure (2008) and Cold Fish (2010). These three films are only loosely connected by the outrageous material explored by Sono. Here, he completes the triangle in the manner he does best: with lots of deviant sex, arresting imagery, and dismembered bodies.

The film starts with a ghastly murder investigation of a mutilated body discovered in a decrepit apartment in one of Tokyo’s love-hotel districts. The investigation is secondary to, but interwoven with the story of Izumi (Megumi Kagurazaka), the submissive wife of a famous romance novelist. She lives a life of servitude she mistakes for love, each moment devoted to mundane tasks designed to make her husband happy. Her life takes a drastic turn when a modeling opportunity sets her on a course for experimentation in softcore porn and prostitution. Guided by Mitsuko (Makoto Togashi) – a university lecturer by day, thrill-seeking prostitute by night – Izumi transforms into a sexually confident woman. Izumi, however, continues to hide her secret life from her husband.

Much like its predecessor Cold Fish, Guilty of Romance is adapted from a true case in Tokyo involving a business woman suspected of being killed while looking for adventure and quick money in the circles of prostitution. The murder established in Guilty of Romance‘s opening – one involving human body parts meshed with the plastic parts of a sex doll – is merely the wraparound story. Sono uses this grisly foundation to comment on the state of Japanese culture,  especially as it pertains to women’s role in family and society. In Sono’s work, women carry the heaviest burdens, and their travails serve to help them grow in some manner. Though they will confront shocking abuses, the result is transformative rather than exploitative. Izumi will weather rape and humiliation on a brutal journey of self-discovery.

Sono keeps his moral compass relatively neutral, and the viewer is never left with the impression that he’s passing judgement on his characters. Izumi’s initial foray into nude modeling is endearing as she acquaints herself with her newfound power. As Guilty of Romance advances, however, we find that the control of her life is just another illusion. She now has new puppeteers – specifically Mitsuko – pulling her strings. Mitsuko is responsible for Izumi’s descent from thrilling adventure into hazardous occupation. Sono brilliantly casts former model Kagurazaka (Cold Fish) as Izumi and sets her against Togashi’s ruthless portrayal of Mitsuko. Their complex relationship is explored with vivid cinematic beauty fraught with ambiguity.

Sono’s films are challenging to digest because of his lyrical style, and Guilty of Romance is one of his more perplexing pieces. Mitsuko’s advice to Izumi –  that men must always pay for sex when there is absence of love – is a boldly defiant philosophy thrown in the face of Izumi’s passivity, as well as Japanese tradition. Izumi’s infidelities are now business ventures, acts she never quite seems to embrace completely. Before she’s able to reconcile her new lifestyle, however, Mitsuko reveals sinister plans for her apprentice.

Ultimately, Sono’s protagonist confronts the fear and violence that bridges a life between servitude and true freedom, a destination she doesn’t quite reach by the conclusion. Izumi, thus, resembles the murder victim of the framing story, one mixed of the plasticity of Izumi’s facade with the flesh of her newly discovered sexual appetites. Whether or not she also ends up on the mortician’s slab remains up to her, and that may be Mitsuko’s most important lesson.

– By Chris Hallock