|Cut to “Have you ever been hit on the head?” Seated, the father waits for a light rail train. He sniffs his finger, with his daughter’s lingering scent. In his first appearance, the unnamed Visitor, a trickster figure, stands behind him with a large rock. And hits Dad on the head.|
|Cut to “Have you ever hit your mother?” A middle-aged woman works on a jigsaw puzzle. A teen male enters and begins hitting the woman, yelling at her that she bought the wrong toothbrush. The physical and verbal abuse continues until he retreats to his own room.|
|In her bedroom, she examines the bruises and scars from previous attacks ...||... and proceeds to do her own coping by shooting up heroin in her thigh.|
|The father’s professional humiliation is shown when he replays a video of his investigation of some young toughs. They rough him up, grab the camera, pull down his pants, and record sticking the microphone up his ass.||Having lost his TV job following display of the video and subsequent ridicule, Dad hopes to get back in the business with a new, more dramatic story. He comes across his son being bullied on the way to school.||Rather than intervening, he records the event, planning to parlay it into an entré for getting his job back.|
|Meanwhile, Mom is supporting her addiction by selling herself during the day. She goes out looking like a middle-class matron in a tailored suit and skirt and ends up in a hotel room with a middle-aged guy who appreciates her even if she does have a limp and scars.|
|He meets with his former producer (and former lover, it seems) trying to talk her into the story. She’s not interested.||He’s concerned about her bruises and asks if her pimp beats her. He then talks her into beating him with his belt. She gingerly begins, then gets into it.|
|Home again after buying more heroin with her earnings, she shoots up and relaxes.||Drawn into her daughter’s room, mom allows Visitor Q to embrace her from behind. He then begins massaging her breasts. She begins to lactate and expresses milk several feet away, spraying it on a photo of her daughter. The son returns home and sees the scene.||At dinner, Mom has prepared a great meal and beams with a new-found satisfaction. The son explodes and hurls a bowl at her. Dad and Visitor Q are impassive and continue to eat.|
|With her new attitude, Mom goes in the kitchen, returns with a knife, and throws it at her son.||Outside, the bullies have returned for their nightly intimidation of the son by shooting fireworks at the house.||In an earlier episode the parents remained mute and inexpressive during an attack, this time Dad jumps at the opportunity to record the moment, excited by his intended story hook: his feelings as his family is endangered. [open notes in new window]|
|The next day Dad talks the producer into watching his son being bullied and pitches the story again.||The producer is uninterested and tries to get away. He pursues the woman and attacks her, yelling that she complained in the past about his premature ejaculation but now he’ll show her.||Ramping up his extreme behavior, as the rape continues, he inadvertently strangles her to death as Visitor Q tapes the episode. They bring the corpse home and place it in a small greenhouse.|
|While Dad figures out how to dispose of the body, Mom shows Visitor Q her new joy in lactation and sense of fulfillment.||Meanwhile, Dad is busy marking the producer’s body for cutting it up. Attracted by the body, before continuing he decides to have sex with it.||At first he’s excited about how tight she is, then he feels that she’s getting wet and calls it a miracle that a dead body could still lubricate. But then he discovers that the corpse has released its bowels. Shocked, he also finds that rigor mortis has set in and his penis is locked in a tight grip. He’s trapped and has to call for help.|
|Meanwhile, back in the kitchen, Mom has produced a prodigious amount of milk and adds her own orgasmic ejaculation to the puddle on the floor. Visitor Q finds a clear umbrella and watches the show.||Alerted to her husband’s distress, Mom runs (limping) to the supermarket to buy dozens of bottles of vinegar that may shrink the skin and free hubby. But no, it doesn’t work and, ever resourceful, she tries a new tactic: she injects him with heroin which frees his penis from the deadly embrace.||Now united in a common purpose, they plan to dispose of the body.|
|The son returns from school, along with the bully boys. The parents unite and quickly kill the interlopers, joyously sharing their common purpose.||Their son, prostrate in the kitchen-floor milk puddle, decides he will study hard for his entrance exams. Soon after a street encounter with Visitor Q (in which he bops her with a rock), the prodigal daughter returns home.||She sees her mother in full nurturing mode and joins in the nuclear family reunion.|
Rather than the more familiar plot of a stranger upsetting normality to reveal deep problems in the family, Miike starts with a family in total disarray. The visitor brings the family back to an ostensible norm and unity. The dark comedy reveals a still deeper pathology: the entire society is sick if this is the means to unite the family into a productive unit.
Disgust in action and in reaction
These two films share a loose structure that seems partly derived from enthusiasm for using the new digital video possibilities of small handheld cameras with an improvisatory production and acting style. Both films exploit their HD video origins for dramatic and formal effect. Both use the device of the video-within-the-film—the characters being involved with moving image making, which we in turn see as internal narrative elements. The characters “make” little “documentaries” which are woven into the larger concerns in Public Toilet most startlingly. The hitman sequence holds to a logic of two cameras—one held by Dong Dong outside of the toilet, and the other a passive hidden camera placidly witnessing the interior events. After Dong Dong escapes with the two cameras, in distress he throws away the evidence in waters surrounding Manhattan. But later he dives in and retrieves it and gives the record to the hitman’s surviving girlfriend.
In Visitor Q the most startling internal footage is the Dad and daughter encounter in the motel, but it is also hilarious as tables are turned: the same device as when the father is assaulted by the young toughs who put his microphone up his rectum. But as much as these are “staged” events—as we know because we are watching a dramatic fictional film with a name auteur director—we also have a strong sense that both directors are self-consciously using the characteristic technical qualities of the (then brand new) portable high definition cameras to inscribe a spontaneity and improvisatory nature to their film. In both films we sense that some shots and sequences are happening before us without extensive preparation (much more so in Public Toilet).
And in both films there are moments which we take as “pure” documentary: in Pubic Toilet, these include the octopus attacking the crabs, and the Benaras scenes of the funeral pyre, the dogs eating the limbs of some bodies, the guys pissing on a wall in public. And in Visitor Q the mother’s lactation is obviously documented, not faked. A further “authenticity effect” is offered in the Visitor Q sex scenes when a digital blur appears to block out direct viewing of genital display and activity, thus affirming that there “really” was something to obscure.
The ethical space of documentary has been eloquently examined in key essays by Vivian Sobchack and Bill Nichols. They consider what it means when we have a factual (as opposed to fictional) media representation of events such as death. Nichols extends this by remarking on fictional films that incorporate on-the-scene events (famously Haskell Wexler’s Medium Cool). With these films the consideration is similar if not so extreme. Actuality intrudes into the narrative. The audience assumes that when Stone drinks the pint of “piss” in Public Toilet, it is actually an innocuous yellow liquid such as beer and he is acting disgusted. We can laugh at his reaction. But when we see the funeral bodies in Benaras or the pissing in public, we assume it is actuality woven into the fictional narration. “This is how they do things there,” is the default reset. Disgusting? Only from a cultural divide that cannot construct a cultural relativist bridge.
The effect of disgust on the audience is connected to formal expression as well. As José B. Capino observes,
As we saw with the opening Potemkin example, the first closeup establishes the fact of maggots. The second closeup by lingering on them wriggling around builds revulsion. In a now well-known example, the extremely violent rape in Gaspar Noé’s Irreversible (2004) with a static camera recording the event in “real time” increases the horrifying act. Another famous example is John Water’s Pink Flamingoes (1972) when in one shot a dog craps on the sidewalk and Divine grabs the turd and puts it in her mouth.
The two films differ in the mode of employing disgust to attain their end. Some shots in Public Toilet produce an initial revulsion: the camera’s underwater passage seems to pass through waste matter, and the bather-filled water in Benaras is clearly foul. Although clearly marked as fantastical, Ocean Girl’s discussion of pollution is pretty disturbing:
The film balances this disturbing grotesqueness with moments of human tenderness, and this marks its strongest achievement. It asks us to re-evaluate what initially seems disgusting with a fuller, richer, and humanist context.
Visitor Q centers more on moral disgust with incest, bullying, a son physically abusing his mother, drug use, prostitution, and parental dissociation from the everyday at the start and the grotesque aspects of murder and necrophilia coming into play only at the end and clearly for comic satiric effect. The critique aims at the family in which keeping up external appearances and social roles are far more important than dealing with direct violence, palpable abuse and errant behavior. But the film also takes aim at Japanese media sensationalism where the constant circulation of social pathologies on TV (schoolyard bullying, children abusing their mothers, teen prostitution, the declining birthrate, etc.) is there for ratings, not to actually understand the situation or change it. (Not much different than U.S. TV with “reportage” shows such as To Catch A Predator.) By pushing to the limit, Miike aims for the dark side, using disgust to advance social satire.
Further consideration of screen disgust must turn to recent critical writings on disgust. That will direct my next installment of this project.