Japanese director Sion Sono needs to be given a strong infusion of capital and immediately isolated from any contact with Hollywood. Not only has the man successfully merged the art house flick with extreme horror, he has done more to pinpoint the plight of the modern middle class in two films than the world’s philosophers have managed to do in the last 50 years.
Together with Kiyoshi Kurosawa, Sono has spearheaded a subgenre this Handbook‘s dubbed existential horror, starting with his 2002 cult hit Suicide Club. In this breed of chiller, serial killers and supernatural entities take a backseat to ennui, social disintegration and alienation — the depiction of which Sono all but mastered in Suicide Club.
Though dubbed a prequel to that film (and marketed as Suicide Club 0 in the French market), Noriko’s Dinner Table is more of a “lateral” work than a prequel or a sequel, despite a timeline that embraces both what came before and after events in that film. (Though a 2005 film, it didn’t get a proper North American DVD release until this year’s Tidepoint edition.)
While it will further irritate fans of that earlier work by never quite answering the core questions it poses, it also will intrigue just about anyone willing to give it a chance. For those who complain about being bombarded by “dumb” cinema, be careful what you wish for.
Feeling trapped by parents who fail to see her and her sister as anything but two member of a happy family, teenager Noriko strikes up a friendship with a Tokyo girl online, and flees to that metropolis to find a more meaningful life. Her friend turns out to be Kumiko, the young ringleader of a bizarre group that hires itself out by the hour as a proxy family for lonely people. Seeing it as an opportunity to reinvent herself, Noriko joins the madness.
However odd the premise sounds, it is that much more poignant when seen on screen. A neglectful father like Noriko’s own hires her and Kumiko to play out an emotional reunion. Later, the pair joins three other “players” — two “parents” and their young “son” — to enact a tearful deathbed farewell for an old man who is clearly fine, but only wanted that catharsis, with the players presumably standing in for family members who couldn’t be bothered to show him that kind of love.
And before you ask, the answer is yes — all of this joins the original plot threads of Suicide Club at some point in the film. To reveal anymore here would be criminal so soon after its May 2008 release in the States. Suffice it to say that Noriko’s Dinner Table is well worth the $22 Amazon is asking for the disc, or at the very least, a rental. (Surprisingly, Netflix already has it.)
The only gripe I have with this film is the packaging, which features a blood-spattered Kumiko. While it’s a move one would expect when catering to horror fans, this movie would be even more rewarding for viewers who have no experience with Sono’s back catalog and simply watch it with no preconceived notions of what is to come. Like Miike’s Audition, the dramatic structure is such that nothing particularly horrific happens until you’re a good way through the film. It’s a small gripe to be sure.
While nowhere near as frenetic as its precursor, Noriko nevertheless pulls back the curtain a bit more on the former’s philosophy and, like that movie, offers up puzzles nearly as confounding. In an age where film plots have gone from being spoon fed to audiences to flat out mainlined, this quality makes this particular cinematic experience all the more precious.