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Suicide Club - Region 1 DVD
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Suicide Circle
cast: Ryo Ishibashi, Akaji Maro, Masatoshi Nagase, Saya Hagiwara, and Hideo Sako

director: Shion Sono

94 minutes (R) 2002
widescreen ratio 16:9
DVD Region 3 retail

RATING: 7/10
reviewed by Richard Bowden
After the inexplicable mass suicide of 54 schoolgirls at a railway station, police are perplexed by the motives behind the tragedy and suspect a 'suicide cult'. Grisly discoveries at the scene, a mysterious website anticipating further deaths, as well as the interest of a strange woman calling herself The Bat add to the puzzle. A teeny pop group, The Dessarts, appears to be linked to the phenomenon and, after The Bat is kidnapped by a terrifying figure called Genesis, the self-styled "Charles Manson of the information age," the detective in charge of the case is confronted by tragic events closer to home.

J.G. Ballard once wrote a story in which, triggered by the unexpected effects of a satellite, a beach load of humans wade out into the sea and drown. There's something of this atmosphere to the en masse deaths in Shion Sono's Suicide Circle (aka: Jisatsu Circle). Here and elsewhere, there's little of the angst normally associated with self-murder in the west. Schoolgirls hold hands and drop off edges to infinity like lemmings, leaving behind neither notes, nor any sense of inner turmoil. Elsewhere, nurses clamber through windows with a casual 'see you later', smiling housewives mutilate their own hands, kids calmly put their heads in hot ovens, or singers slit their own throats in front of an unsuspecting audience - all unfathomable, unexplained events. Some of Sono's film relies upon elements familiar elsewhere from recent Asian horror. The matter of a 'haunted website' for instance, or the white bag with its gruesome contents, the reappearance of which recalls a similarly ominous item in Nakata's Dark Water from the same year, which also has overtones of premature death.

Where Suicide Circle stands apart from contemporary productions however, is the fact that some of it is grounded in truth; younger generations of Japanese do have high suicide rates (often attributed to academic stress) and the country has seen so-called suicide cults spring up in the past. Interestingly, on IMDb the highest approval rating for the film comes from female viewers under 18, indicating that Suicide Circle does have a resonance and a truth of its own.

Just how others take such an obtuse and disturbing portrayal of Japanese life and death depends ultimately on how much closure is sought after such tragic events. Sono, apparently known back at home both for producing gay porn as well as performance art, was inspired to make his film after the inexplicable suicide of a close friend, who abruptly ended his own life with no apology or explanation. Filmed in a variety of styles, ranging from improvisatory scenes (some shot at Shinjuki train station, itself a notorious suicide black spot), through to pop video, the sombre interiors of a police procedural as well as Rocky Horror Show-type acting, it is exactly the sort of project which sharply divides viewers - but can haunt one for days after seeing it.

Given the subject matter, it would be surprising if the some of the film were not particularly gruesome. Strips of flesh, washes of blood, ears on window sills, gore smeared on walls... the detritus of death is everywhere visible and has gained the film some notoriety with viewers. Despite this (and the occasional suspicion that the makers are not entirely above pitch black humour) Suicide Circle is not an exploitative film as such; rather the tone is sombre, interspersed with occasional moments of terror as well as surreal calmness. A reflective, dark mood predominates enhanced by an excellent score. Only the over the top intrusion of Genesis into the plot is something of a distraction, although it is arguable that the faintly ludicrous nature of this media monster merely provides another reason to disbelieve his claims. Sono's background with unrehearsed performance art pays dividends in such scenes as the school roof deaths, where the peculiar group psychology behind events is brought along naturally and spontaneously, caught by his camera circling the excited schoolchildren. Thus, whilst we never know why they can act as they do, we at least discover what it is like to be there as such a momentous decision is made, and the inevitability of disaster is very frightening.

So good are some parts of the film, in fact, that one wishes it was all of such a high standard. Both its immediate strength, and greatest weakness, is that it refuses to provide any ready answers to a disturbing phenomenon. There are various interpretations one can make through a fractured narrative, which contains so many elements without affirming the primacy of any as a 'solution'. Perhaps its open ending suggests that the problem of self-destruction itself can never have ready answers. Other have seen in the media-savvy, murderous Genesis, as well as the 12-year-old girl band Dessarts an implicit condemnation of mindless youth culture and the communications industry, although a precise connection between the media and suicide is hard to establish, either here or elsewhere - a point made by some of the closing scenes of the film which have an unreal, illogical quality of their own. Surely, if Sono had intended had any cause to be explicit; he would have made a connection more real? More interestingly, it has been suggested that the whole narrative represents Sono's attempt to come to personal terms with the loss of his friend. In this light the policeman's closing wordless 'farewell' to the girl on the train, before she pulls away, can be seen as a final conciliation. As the eerie phone calls from Dessarts suggest, this means accepting personal responsibility for one's actions, or being 'connected to yourself'.

It is clear that neither The Bat, nor Genesis, leader of his own 'Suicide Club' have alternative answers, just as the police are unable to solve the mystery, and are left wondering "which is murder and which isn't?" In fact the chief investigating officer Kuroda (played with effective dismay by Ryo Ishibashi), reaches a dead end of his own, both in a professional and personal sense. In its extended coda, the film finishes leaving the viewer unsure of whether any further progress has - or can - been made. A Hollywood production might have the hero overcoming a conspiracy, catching the killer, ending the deaths and winning the girl. Life is not that simple, a fact that some will find uncomfortable or perhaps, unsatisfactory. Just as Dessarts sing it here, "the world is a jigsaw puzzle" and we are left with a picture that can never be complete.

Suicide Circle has yet to make an appearance on DVD in the UK - perhaps not surprisingly given the sensitivity of the subject matter - but there's a Region 1 edition (retitled Suicide Club) available from US distributor TLA. The imported Asian disc reviewed here features a trailer, as well some cast and director interviews culled from the launch press conference. Unfortunately the latter is not subtitled, making a closer interpretation of intentions more difficult. But by its refusal to compromise, the film remains a startling and controversial piece.

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