It's hard for any film to bring something new to the standard dysfunctional family dynamic. Cinema has seen it all - disgruntled adolescents, adults in full midlife crisis mode, infidelity, divorce, the struggles of step-relations, and any number of psychological and emotional traumas. Thanks to the independent film, a category that feeds on the notion that anyone's personal kinfolk catastrophe makes for riveting (and cheap) drama, along with the changing social status of the irradiated nuclear brood, the subject no longer resonates. Instead, most relative-oriented efforts come off as whiny, self-indulgent statements of the filmmaker's failing maturity, nothing more.
Not so with writer/director Sion Sono. After an infamous life of booze and baffling behavior, the celebrated Japanese artist has used the international success of 2002's bravura Suicide Club to jumpstart his lagging reputation. That prior effort, a surreal horror statement that focused on the self-destruction of 54 schoolgirls, all of whom jump in front of a rush hour train, was a schizophrenic free-for-all, an attempted cultural commentary lashed to the normal splatter spookshow. Now, Sono revisits the events of that fateful day with Noriko's Dinner Table (new to DVD from Facets Video), enclosing the story with a unique look at parent/child problems and the typical teen angst. In the process, he manages to create a stunning post-modern masterpiece.
Poor Noriko feels lost in her house. Her father is distant, her mother loving but cold. Sister Yuka simply laughs at her disquiet, not yet old enough to feel a similar sense of interpersonal disconnect. One day, Noriko discovers a website and a messageboard where like minded girls come and discuss their problems. One screen name in particular - Ueno Station 54 - offers sympathy and support, and soon our unsettled girl runs away to Tokyo. There, she meets the person behind the postings. She's Kumiko, in her mid '20s, and running an odd talent agency. Seems she hires on individuals she meets online, and then trains them to be family members 'for hire'. Noriko signs up, and eventually, Yuka joins her, leaving their reporter father to wonder what's happened to his children.
First and foremost, Sono wants to understand what makes a family. Is it simply biology, or can it be bought? We see several instances of Kumiko's company in action, elderly folks ecstatic for a visit from their 'loved ones', desperate fathers hoping to reconnect with the daughters that fate has unfairly taken from them. During these scenes, which really aren't explained at first, we hear Noriko's insightful justifications. Because she comes from an unhappy home, because she finds her father a selfish and hateful man, the happiness evoked inside these faked scenarios fills her heart with hope. Eventually, she will lose herself in the job, forgetting all together about the domestic situation she left in the Japanese countryside.
Kumiko's story is equally intriguing. Found in a locker at a train station, she has grown up hating the mother who abandoned her. Years later, when a reconciliation is attempted, the bitter child merely hires on the parent as part of her business. Kumiko is seen as an integral part of the Suicide Club, present when the girls take their lives, and often delivering other sacrificial victims to murderous clients. If Noriko's Dinner Table has a villain, it would be this impish little witch. But we see something similar in her, something that makes Noriko's rash decisions and whiny weakness seem understandable. Kumiko is just as lost as the people she patronizes, eagerly falling into the role of wife, child, parent, or partner. Sometimes, however, it's hard to keep the ever-blurring line between fantasy and reality clear.
It's a theme that Sono restates over and over. Noriko tells one version of her life at home. Yuka both supports and subverts her interpretation. Father, who indeed plays the most ambiguous role in the triangle, is an unclear combination of faults and fears - some true, some as fictional as the characters his daughters are hired to essay. He's simultaneously the most and least sympathetic individual in the film, clearly detached from the needs of his wife and children, and yet devastated when they disappear one by one. Sono seems to be suggesting that all of Japan is trapped in a work ethic that ignores the needs of the person for the benefit of production. It's part of the rationale behind the series of suicides acting as a subtext, as well as the reason Kumiko's company is thriving.
All of this plays out in deliberate steps (or "chapters", as Sono calls them), meant to reflect both the differing perspectives of the main characters as well as the actual novel the director wrote after Suicide Club's success. The movie frequently feels like a book, loaded with little details that build up over time to create a complex, mesmerizing narrative. There will be those who see the two hour and thirty-five minute running time and balk at such storytelling excess. Others, like this critic, will drink in every moment and wish for more. As he did with Suicide Club, Sono leaves more questions unanswered than addressed, and the ending is so ambiguous that anything could literally happen next.
Though rumor has it that the director will revisit this material for another sequel, the interview included as part of the bonus features on the DVD seems to suggest otherwise. Indeed, Sono says he may address the mysteries of the Club itself, but Noriko's story is more or less complete - which again is odd, considering that we really don't know much more than what's implied by a final firm statement offered by our hapless heroine. Yet even inside such an inference, Sono discovers volumes of meaning. Noriko's Dinner Table may represent a family finally finding itself, or the inevitable disintegration brought on by adulthood and aging. Whatever the case, this amazing movie delivers its deconstruction in ways that are both shocking and stellar. It singlehandedly reinvigorates a dying cinematic genre of relative dysfunction. It's personal pain as art, pure and simple.