REVIEW: Videophobia (2019)

During the day Ai (Tomona Hirota) works as a mascot on the streets of Osaka. At night, she supplements her income performing sex acts online. After a one-night stand she discovers her entire encounter has been recorded and uploaded to a website. Daisuke Miyazaki has written and directed a bleak, rough-hewn nightmare with Videophobia (2019), a film that is entirely realistic yet as frightening as a horror movie.

This independent Japanese production, presented in the de rigueur black-and-white picture of low-budget cinema, punches well above its weight with a dramatic premise, some challenging complexity and ambiguity, and a superb lead performance by Tomona Hirota. It depicts a nightmare scenario for any woman: recorded having sex without consent, having one’s most intimate self exposed on the Internet for the world to see, and being entirely unable to stop it from happening or remove it from the web. One assumes justice is possible in a situation like this. Videophobia bluntly and provocatively suggests otherwise. A female police detective seems not only unhelpful but rudely dismissive. Attempts to contact the man who betrayed and recorder her seem doomed to fail. The psychological effect on Ai is profound.

There are a lot of factors at play, and Miyazaki has put a lot of trust in the audience to tie threads together and do a fair amount of the thematic “heavy lifting” for themselves. A core element of Ai’s crisis is her ethnicity: she is half-Korean, something that brings with it all manner of subtle and underhanded racism towards her. The film is also dominated by themes of identity, and the transformation of it: between jobs Ai is taking acting classes, where an aggressively demanding teacher makes his students repeatedly introduce themselves in a range of invented identities. Ai goes home with the man who betrays her, and comes to discover nothing he told her about himself was true. Once exposed on the Internet, Ai’s entire identity seems compromised – how does one move on in life if their very sense of self feels stripped away and ruined?

The film also has a firm moral streak. The film opens on Ai performing sex acts on a webcam for a paying client, and it would be easy for a lesser writer/director to use such work to muddy the question of culpability. It is a credit to Miyazaki’s screenplay that the two events – the sex work and the revenge porn – are not conflated in any way. Indeed, the film makes it clear that the voluntary behaviour in one context absolutely does not excuse the abuse in the other.

The film focuses very intimately on Ai, and Tomona Hirota brings a complex and rich performance to her character. It takes a short while to fully engage with the character, because circumstance has seen her close up for her own emotional protection. She lives in a guest house with several other young women, but is guarded around them and resists any sort of emotional engagement. It is only as the film’s narrative disrupts her life that we see a more detailed and sympathetic character. It is easily worth the time and effort spent in getting there.

Videophobia is an excellent addition to Japan’s independent film scene, and promises much from both its star and its talented writer/director. This is Miyazaki’s fifth feature since 2011. With any luck his earlier works will become available to an international audience.

Videophobia is available on an English-subtitled and region-free blu ray from Kani/Vinegar Syndrome. Click here for more information.

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