Kuso is the feature length debut of Steven Ellison a.k.a musician Flying Lotus a.k.a. rapper Captain Murphy. It’s not much of a surprise that the electronic artist has taken to the visual medium. His music often samples sound bites of video games or re-appropriates older movie soundtracks. Plus, he’s renowned for his 3-D concerts which – through the use of projectors – blend psychedelic visuals with his trademark slippy beats (I caught one of these sets at Forbidden Fruit 2014 and it remains one of the best shows I’ve ever seen). Thus, I was excited to see his first film – now streaming on horror platform Shudder – even after mixed reports out of its Sundance premiere.
Inspired by the extreme Japanese cinema of Takashi Miike and Shin’ya Tsukamoto (Kuso translates to “shit” in Japanese, the film is best summed up as an abstract body-horror comedy. It’s comprised of a group of vignettes taking place in a post-earthquake L.A. Yet, there is more wrong with the inhabitants of the city than just aftershocks and rubble. Every character has grotesque boils on their faces and seems to have given into their repressed abject urges.
Although the shorts are very abstract – two of which end incomprehensibly – one gets the feeling that Ellison is making a point about humanity’s baser tendencies. The vignettes – comprised of some nifty, off-kilter effects work – all centre upon issues like irrational fears, voyeurism, sexual fetishism, maternal instinct and people’s need of a master. It’s interesting to watch the filmmaker take things we can recognise but moving them into a surreal context even if deciphering what point he’s trying to crystallise may take some effort.
However, with abstract and also frankly disgusting cinema – there needs to be something which draws the viewer in. With David Lynch’s more surrealist works like Eraserhead or Inland Empire, there’s a strange entrancing beauty and a mastery of tone and emotion that keeps more patient audiences invested. With David Cronenberg’s Videodrome, there’s great performances, incredible dialogue and a strangely prophetic message about humanity’s future which helps transcend the sense of “weirdness for the sake of weirdness”.
Meanwhile, all Kuso really offers – aside from some trippy set-design – is a plethora of bodily fluids (and I mean everything one can think of) and puerile, offensive humour (jokes about abortions and hangers, genitals being mutilated and rape). Although Ellison is clearly satirising elements of modern society – e.g. a reality show about people having their penises cut off is a dig at exploitative TV – it’s crude, feeling like something a troubled teen would think of. And while he’s making a statement, the way he’s going about it is unpleasant and tough to stomach.
This may be intentional and I’m sure plenty of devoted Flylo fans will get a kick out of watching Ellison let loose in a cinematic format. It may, too, appeal to people who appreciate the deep end of surrealism. Still, for casual enjoyers of the musician and genre, Kuso is only fragmentarily interesting as well as completely revolting.
Stephen Porzio (twitter@porzfolio)