QUICK AND DIRTY: LIVE FROM TALLINN
Saki Omura’s (Nonoka Ishikawa) life at home is far from happy. She is terribly jealous of her mentally-ill sister Shoko, at one point resorting to shocking violence that nearly claims her life. Things are far from rosy at university, too. She competes for the “Skinny Queen” accolade against the self-righteous and popular Rena, and other students often mock her appearance. She looks at herself in a large broken mirror at home and sees an obese person, when in reality she is super-thin and suffering from bulimia. So her parents decide to send her to a private intitution specialised in eating disorders.
The techniques employed at the institution are very unorthodox: the female patients are made to shave their heads and wear a white patient gown, robbing them entirely of their individuality. The facilities where Saki is expected to live the next three months of her life have no mirrors, and the toilets possess no doors. Everyone is asked to take a daily picture of their faeces, and they regularly undergo medical tests. And they are prohibited from writing letters or contacting the outside world. There are no male patients. Saki befriend Ms Sayuri, a slightly older woman with a child and a husband back home. They are strictly under the purview of a sadistic female doctor and her partner, identified only as “the owner”. They subject the women to all sorts of torture: psychological, physical and sexual.
The eerie music score helps to create a tense atmosphere, compatible with horror movies. Abundant blood and gruesome violence help to enhance the tone. A mouth is sown, eyes spew blood, and body parts are chopped off, in some of the most graphic and disturbing scenes. There’s also plenty of dirty talk, and repeated references to a “slimy pussy”. This is the closest you will ever get to frontal nudity in Japanese cinema (a country that bans the exposure of genitalia even in pornography). A bizarre cocktail of subversions and provocations. However, Ben-Joe will neither shock nor intrigue you. That’s because these nasty devices are mostly gratuitous, barely fulfilling a narrative purpose other than to disgust viewers.
Despite its incoherences (or perhaps precisely because of them), this a fun movie. Ben-Joe is so bonkers and messed up that it’s strangely enjoyable to watch, even at 136 minutes. The acting is completely over-the-top. The narrative is disjointed, and the numerous and flashbacks are clunky and cheesy (with an increasingly deranged Saki recalling both the beautiful and the harrowing moments of the past). The final denouement is so shocking that it’s barely credible. Yet Ben-Joe purports to be based on a real story. The muddled-up narrative, combined with the exaggerated script have a major impact on the film’s claim of veracity.
This is not a denunciation piece. That’s because the name of the real institution is never revealed, unlike in other films portraying a mental health or charitable organisation that routinely tortured and murdered its patients/inmates (such as Matias Rojas Valencia’s A Place Called Dignity, from 2021, and Andre Ristum’s Nobody Leaves Alive, from this year; both movies also premiered at Tallinn).
The movie attempts to add a little philosophical touch by quoting classic Japanese writer Ryūnosuke Akutagawa: “you don’t do what you desire, you do what you can”, and also the notion that the Japanese reject the European concept of individuality because it derives from a monotheistic system. I have no idea how these ideas inform the narrative. They just feel lost, as do so many other narrative devices. Ultimately, Ben-Joe is a patchwork of horror, social and intellectual references. Sit back and enjoy one of the most absurd stories you will have seen in a long time. Then decide whether you are prepared to believe whether the sordid developments depicted are real or not.
Ben-Joe just premiered in the Official Selection of the 27th Tallinn Black Nights Film Festival.