This was not the film I expected, and I’m happy about that. LOVE AND OTHER CULTS, from Japanese filmmaker Eiji Uchida, is probably the most unique film to come out of Japan in a long time, and it is quite possibly my favorite film at the Fantasia Film Festival. With themes of discontentment and angst, Eiji creates a coming of age tale, almost in stream-of-consciousness, that leaves the audience emotionally drained, but yet it’s hilarious. This dark, unsettling comedy is filled with eclectic characters, bizarre situations, and more than a few human monsters.
LOVE AND OTHER CULTS opens on three young school boys in a public men’s room reading a message scrawled above the toilet. The message is from a woman named Ai giving a phone number they can call to have sex with her. A few minutes after the boys call, they are met outside by a young man named Ryota and a demur young girl named Ai. There is something immediately captivating about Ai. She softly floats into the scene as a vision of beauty and innocence. As they discuss the possibility of losing their virginity with Ai, they are soon joined by a young flamboyant thug named Yuji and a silent yet dangerous golf-club-wielding Kenta. The gang extorts $500 each from the boys then goes on their way, but not before Ai looks back at the boys and says, “help me”.
What starts out as the set-up for your typical fast-action night these boys will never forget turns into something far more meaningful. Ryota assumes the role of narrator as he tells the tragic story of Ai, his first love. Ai’s story starts ten years earlier, as a little girl living with a religious zealot of a mother who changes religions throughout the movie. Annoyed by the responsibility of motherhood, she sends Ai to live in a cultist commune. There she meets Lavi, a Western cult leader who renames her Ananda. Ananda is the name of Buddha’s first cousin and is one of his ten disciples. Ten years later, Ai returns to civilization after Lavi and his cult members are arrested. She attends a school where she meets Ryota. She and Ryota share a bond of isolation which defines their relationship by never letting them truly be together as they drift in and out of each other’s lives. This failed relationship plays out against a violent backdrop of low-level street thugs and bottom tier rural Yakuza.
If you’ve grown up in a small “nowhere” town with aspirations of one day getting out, then you’ll really connect with this film. With LOVE AND OTHER CULTS, director Eiji Uchida takes us out of the typical urban backdrop of Tokyo and into a small rural town with very little to offer. In many ways, it plays out like a lot of American teenage small town angst movies like OVER THE EDGE (1979), SLC PUNK (1998), or SUBURBIA (1996). I was surprised at just how much story Eiji had packed into this 95-minute film, while still matching the pace of his pop-punk soundtrack.
Uchida has certainly set himself up as one of Japan’s most unconventional filmmakers. Both hilarious and heartbreaking, LOVE AND OTHER CULTS was an unexpectedly wonderful find at Fantasia Film Festival. I’m already looking forward to seeing it again. For more info on this and other films currently playing at the Fantasia Film Festival, keep checking Blumhouse.com. And watch the LOVE AND OTHER CULTS trailer below.