I’m new to the blood-drenched idiosyncrasies of Sion Sono, the Japanese filmmaker getting a double-bill tonight at the Toronto After Dark Film Festival. Sono takes the word prolific and makes a mockery of it: both Tag and Love & Peace were released this year, as part of five feature-length movies he’s made over the course of 2015. He’s eccentric, and a bonafide enfant terrible. Love Exposure (2008) is a weird exploration of cults, Catholicism, transvestism, and upskirt photography. Suicide Club (2001) traces a rash of suicides that follow 54 schoolgirls jumping to their deaths in front of a subway train, its detective lead wrestling with the byzantine connections of a surreal epidemic. And surrealism is at the heart of what Sono is up to. Tag opens with a bunch of uniformed Japanese schoolgirls on a tour bus, laughing and talking together. Until the bus ahead is ripped apart for no reason. The heroine Mitsuko (Reina Treindl) bends down in the aisle to pick up her pen, and is the only one spared as her bus is literally sliced in half along its length—she stands up bewildered, the roof gone, surrounded by bloody torsos as the bus rolls along the highway. It’s visceral, gripping and deranged, but can Sono keep that up for a whole film?
I’ll give you a quick TL/DR. Tag is pretty insane, inspired filmmaking from start to finish. Sono has no problem coming up with bloody flourishes, but the film’s surreal twists are what make it simultaneously maddening and intriguing. Mitsuko runs along the highway as an invisible demonic breeze gusts after her, severing anyone on the road at the waist. She keeps hitting the dirt, avoiding its ghostly scythe. She finds respite by a small pond littered with corpses, and takes a clean shirt to replace her blood-drenched one. She walks away, and comes upon her friends walking to school. But it’s not the school she remembers, and she’s not sure these are her friends. Was it a dream? Sono leaves the question open, as Mitsuko wanders off with a new bunch of friends, one tellingly named Sur, for her belief that life is constantly surreal, and you can’t let it take control of you. A new wave of violence engulfs the teenagers at their school, and Mitsuko is on the run again. Here Sono shifts to a higher, weirder gear, borrowing from the likes of renowned Spanish surrealist Luis Buñuel and changing his actress as Mitsuko finds herself transformed into Keiko (Mariko Shinoda), a 25-year-old bride-to-be. The waves of violence aren’t far behind and more transformations loom, leaving the viewer enraptured and confused.
There is a method to Sono’s madness, and as it reaches a climax of sorts the film offers up a critique of women treated as objects and playthings, even as the film itself has relied on that objectification immensely (Sono’s fondness for upskirt imagery remains deeply entrenched—my girlfriend and I joked the film should’ve been called Run Panties Run). For all its manic swings, Tag isn’t entirely enjoyable. Even at a brisk hour-and-a-half run-time, some of the film’s chase scenes grow tiresome as Mitsuko or Keiko or whoever she is sprints in breathless desperation for minutes on end. The absence of men until the final third is interesting and deliberate. When they do appear, you quickly wish they hadn’t. As a feminist statement, the film feels half-baked to me, and taking control by opting out entirely is a solution that’s distinctly Japanese in its cultural contours. Still, Tag is a wild ride, balanced on the edge between horror and arthouse. If you want to be challenged by your grindhouse thrills, then run, don’t walk down to the ScotiaBank Theatre for Toronto After Dark tonight. And don’t forget to duck.