At night in Times Square, NYC, hitman Sam (Sam Lee; in shadow above) talks to his girlfriend, now at the Great Wall seeking help from a shaman for her ailing mother. She begs him to quit his violent life, and (in full cinematic cliché irony) he promises this is his last job. Someone carrying a porcelain toilet walks past during the call. Back in the Beijing hospital, elderly patient Fatty whose bed has a novel motorized bedpan gets Tony’s little brother, Sheng, to assist with the device, which moves into place under the bed and wraps the waste in a plastic bag for disposal. A modern mechanical marvel modulates the disgusting production. Fatty’s good humor and flirting with the nurse underlines the purely instrumental nature of hospital behavior, its matter-of-factness, while the automated technology is another wonder of modern progress. Later Sheng is disconsolate that his water pistol has disappeared. Fatty tries to cheer him up by reminding him that the Korean film they saw was really good, especially the special effects. “They got me so excited I had to take another dump!”[8] [0pen notes in new window]
On a night train in India a frail elderly man asks Chinese traveler Tony for help. He agrees, offering the kindness of strangers, and reminding us that care-giving modifies any predisposition to find human waste disgusting. In the holy city of Benaras, the deceased are bathed in River Ganga before cremation. At the riverside a body is burned on a funeral pyre. The head and feet are visible.
In New York, Dong Dong accidentally meets Sam, who asks his help in videotaping his last hit. Beyond the Statue of Liberty in the harbor stand huge cranes used to unload container ships involved in global commerce. Having arrived in Benaras, Tony is invited to bathe in the river. Film-within-the-film. Meanwhile in NYC, the hit goes wrong. Recorded on Dong Dong’s hidden camera, a homeless guy in a midtown public toilet finds the hidden gun before Sam arrives. When the deal comes down, the homeless guy and Sam are shot. Dong Dong, filming outside, sees the killers flee as wounded Sam collapses on the street. Dong Dong runs inside, retrieves the camera, and flees.
In Benaras Tony visits two guys he met on the train who first took him for Japanese and were surprised that he spoke Chinese (and he that they did as well). They explain they are Non-Resident Indians, and grew up in Hong Kong where their father, a migrant worker from India, manages a public toilet. This is their first time in India. They say their father is called “God of Toilets” because of his occupation, and Tony tells them about Dong Dong. Later the NRI brothers think about their future while taking a taxi in Benaras.
And they see men pissing in public, which they find bizarre, if not disgusting. Kim’s close friend Cho (In-seong Jo, another Korean teen idol star), afflicted with an inherited illness that will kill him before 40, decides to leave Korea and look for a cure. In China he asks a fellow passenger about a curative fungus; the young woman replies that what he’s seeking is old fashioned; nowadays everyone uses White Lotus. Back in Pusan, Kim attends to Cho’s pet octopus. (When leaving, Cho asks his buddy to “take care of my octopus”—a joke on the then wildly popular teen girl film Take Care of My Cat (d. Jae-eun Jeong, Goyangileul butaghae, 2001). Placed in adjoining tanks, the octopus leaves its home to attack and eat large crabs next door.
The dramatic animal action sequence is watched with great amusement by Li and Zhang on a portable DVD player. They remark how when they were young you had to walk hours to see a movie and now it’s very easy. Sharing time and talk in the public toilet, Zhang tells Li about a famous court physician in the Qing dynasty who diagnosed the royals by inspecting their excrement daily. Complaining he is constipated, Zhang stays behind when Li leaves, and then dies, in the same place Dong Dong was born 20 years earlier.
Back at the hospital, Fatty dies while experiencing explosive diarrhea. His young roommate, Sheng (Yi-sheng Sun) now alone, climbs on Fatty’s bed and sticks his head into the bedpan hole, calling “Fatty, where are you?” As with Kim’s portapotty dialogue with Ocean Girl, the toilet hole is a window on an alternative world, refiguring the site of disgust into attempted communion. In Benaras, Tony consults a holy man who advises him to keep walking to find a cure for his brother and enlightenment. As he leaves the temple he hears music and outside the temple door an open air screening of a Bollywood musical is going on. The print is horribly scratched and worn, but the monk explains, “It’s a movie—a musical. Even though people suffer, you can still find religious happiness.” Traveling by boat on the Ganga, Tony sees dogs chewing on human body parts. Since the poorer people cannot always afford enough wood to completely consume the dead person, some partially burned bodies end up floating downstream and are subject to salvage by dogs.[9]
From Benaras, Tony calls Dong Dong and while on the phone and describes his participation in the local custom. In the penultimate scene, voice-over narrator Dong Dong reflects on the uncertain future of this contemporary world.

And in a symbolic sequence we see the diverse young travelers gathered together, unified in the film frame, while presumably actually dispersed world wide in the film’s narrative.



The group is silently looking at the Pusan portapotty which floats on an icy river. (Earlier it fell off a truck and in a comic chase slide downhill through the city, finally falling into the sea.) Is the image an objective correlative for the characters’ feelings? A return to the object of the film’s title, now transformed by the narrative design into a richer and refigured meaning? But the odd symbol is superceded by a breathtaking landscape shot with a long human procession crossing the space as the final shot.  

Public Toilet goes back and forth between moments which are almost outrageously grotesque (Ocean Girl surviving on waste and living in a toilet) or funny in an adolescent humor way (getting Stone to try to drink urine) and very mature observations about daily life (human interdependence when traveling; loneliness in old age). It moves through folk stories (the curative powers of a virgin’s pee) and fantasy depictions (the plastic “baby” doll used to represent Dong Dong’s birth) to pop culture topos (the killer on his last mission).[10] Many of the film’s examples have to do with pollution, and they remind us that it is the poor and working people who experience ecological degeneration first hand. Fruit Chan’s familiar themes—youth adrift, relations to someone dying, an uncertain future, and the body as carrier of history—are all present in this work.

While Tony leaves Benaras on a bus, Dong Dong muses, “Human failures have brought about the destruction of the future: diseases, pollution, war, natural disasters. Everything rages on like a mountain fire. What kind of technology can bring a stop to all of these?” Some one could nit-pick the logic: do humans create natural disasters? Earthquakes and volcanoes? Yet man-made global warming does have results in “nature” such as changing weather patterns, melting icecaps and glaciers, more violent tropical storms. And man-made pollution has destroyed vast areas of the sea for fishing. As the film draws to a close, we see first the individual trekkers, and then the group of them gathered looking at the portapotty in the river. We sense them as individuals trying to find a passage to the future. The film’s elders, particularly Grandma and her boyfriends, lived through a time of transition that was grounded in the social, in a communal materiality. The youth have been stripped of that social basis, free from place and family to be part of an international migrant labor force. The public toilet stands for a private act that takes place in a public place. As Grandma said, it can be lonely to shit all by yourself.


Visitor Q: the family as black comedy

Takashi Miike’s Visitor Q starts by presenting a massively dysfunctional family and then moves to bring them together in harmonious productivity. In the conclusion, the family has achieved the socially sanctioned ideological norm of the Good Nuclear Family in Japan. The runway daughter has returned, the son has resolved to study hard for his entrance exams next year, and mom and dad have regained joy in their relationship, enthusiastically sharing a common project, while dad finds an exciting new professional project and mom ascends to being the celebrated provider of maternal plenitude. To get to that end point, the members are involved in multiple murders, mayhem, rape, and drug use. Thus the film implicitly asks, what kind of a society establishes a social norm for the family that can only be achieved by criminal and socially grotesque behaviors?

The film also showcases the celebrated badboy director’s rapid production skills while using digital video cameras and editing. Originally part of a package of six feature films intended for direct to DVD circulation (the films were showcased in a small Tokyo theatre for a short time before sales), Visitor Q depicts a series of disgusting and disturbing actions in a self-consciously satirical comedy. Many critics compared the film to Teorema, Pasolini’s 1968 film in which a stranger enters a family and through sexual encounters reveals the social group’s dark side. The film could also be compared with Buñuel’s Susana (Mexico, 1951) in which a young woman hired as a servant unlocks the hypocrisy of an aristocratic family. It’s also a riffing on a well-known Japanese satiric comedy, The Family Game (d. Yoshimitsu Morita, 1983, Kazoku gemu) in which a modern Japanese family hires a tutor for the goof-off younger son so he can do well in his entrance exams. But the new element begins a slow cascade of changes and trouble that ends in disruption that reveals all the problems below the initially placid surface.

Rather than revealing what is well-concealed, Miike’s film begins and continues with open dysfunction on display. The stranger doesn’t speak and hardly interacts with the family members, functioning more as witness than provocateur. The family’s father was a broadcast TV journalist who lost his job when he tried to interview a gang of young toughs and they assaulted him, taping the assault which included pulling his pants down and sticking his microphone up his ass. The father is trying to get back into the news business by making a new documentary on troubled youth, using his own son and daughter as case studies. The narrative and style avoids naturalist realism and gives us very little to understand character psychology. But it does carry connotations of realism with video-within-the-film and a good amount of handheld footage. The father seems increasingly maniacal in his crazed pursuit of getting his job back, and he’s also oblivious to the situation or feelings of his children and wife, but we don’t know why. Many viewers react to the film by labeling it disgusting, as evidenced by blog entries on sites such as IMDb.com, Amazon.com, and Asian film sites. But, as is often typical with horror films, others find precisely the same events comic, over-the-top, and marked with satire. Murder, necrophilia, and incest collide with bullying, drug addiction, prostitution, and lactation in a free-for-all of outrageous acts. The film’s audience is drawn in not to analyze and reflect, but to see how much further the film will go: reproducing the same reality TV journalism sensation-seeking as the dad’s profession.

The first scene, 12 minutes long, sets the extreme theme. A title asks: “Have you ever done it with your dad?” We see a young girl wearing a Japanese schoolgirl outfit undressing. The space seems like a sex hotel room and it’s shot with several cameras: DV and still, handheld subjective, and also static. A middle-aged man says, “I can’t do this.” The young woman says, “Touch me.” From his camera POV, his hand goes under her short skirt and he fondles her. Jumping into the start of the film with no other set up, we are led to assume this is the well-known Japanese male sexual obsession with school girls. The woman begins to bargain for services. He is videotaping the encounter; she is taking stills of him; a third static camera records the scene. In the poorly lit scene he goes down on her genitals (digi-blur) and then begins intercourse which quickly ends: she mocks him, “early bird!” He replies, “you can’t tell anyone this.” She ratchets up the price of the encounter for her silence.

In extreme close up a young woman speaks to the camera, saying she understands the purpose of the documentation, to show “the truth about teens today. They show us the future of Japan…that hopeless future.” Since we don’t know the context on first viewing, it is only in retrospect when we know she is talking to her father, a TV reporter... ... that we can fully understand she is using the banal rhetoric of broadcast TV “exposé” journalism and actually mocking her dad. The teen uses her own still camera to document the encounter, taking a picture of her father at work while he records the same moment on HD video.Even with the clue intertitle, only in retrospect would many realize this was incest as well as prostitution and the father... ... has been “investigating” runaway teen prostitutes by “interviewing” his own daughter who is one.The provocative title (in true seedy and sensational journalism style), “Have you ever done it with your dad?” is being answered with the cameras. And the encounter ends with his anxiety about his premature ejaculation and keeping it a secret rather than keeping the fact of incest “our little secret.” She agrees, if the price is right.
At her invitation, he touches her crotch. Having negotiated the price, Dad strips down and begins to caress her. She takes a still picture of him going down on her genitals.
Mounting her, he quickly climaxes. She mocks his premature ejaculation. The reversal and humor is especially strong. Whereas normally prostitutes humor their clients and build up their egos (part of the job, and also seeking a bigger tip), this gal humiliates her client, which also gets her a revenge on Dad.

And a higher fee. Against the baseline expectation that a father having sex with his daughter is using his power to force her or manipulate her “against her will,” here the daughter has the upper hand, gains the coercive awareness that he has a premature ejaculation problem, and thus blackmails the client/father (as family members often can use intimate knowledge against each other) for her own ends: more money. A replay of Nabokov’s Lolita.

Go to page 3

To topPrint versionJC 52 Jump Cut home

Creative Commons License
This work is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial-NoDerivs 2.5 License.