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Sundance Film Review: ‘Kuso’

Variety logo Variety 1/28/2017 Dennis Harvey
© Provided by Variety

Nearly every year at the Sundance film festival, some out-there entry ekes a modicum of press attention from reports that viewers fainted, barfed, or walked out en masse. This year, that film would be Midnight selection “Kuso,” though so far the drama hasn’t escalated beyond walkouts (an apparent sizable minority at public screenings, a majority at the press screening attended). Instead of deterring everyone, such notoriety inevitably whets the appetite of people who 50 years ago would have been lining up for their 10th viewing of “Mondo Cane” — the sort of audiences forever on the lookout for something weirder or more extreme to make them go, “Ewwwww!”

Those viewers, as well as some among the habitually-stoned, will constitute the primary fans of this first feature by “Steve,” aka Steve Ellison, better known as electronic musician, producer, and deejay Flying Lotus. Everybody else is going to want to take a wide detour around this insufferable mishmash of interwoven segments — aimless in themselves, even more so as a whole — almost entirely concerned with bodily functions and bodily fluids.

That it took a small army of animators and other craftspersons to realize Ellison’s vision only underlines the stupefying nature of its gist, which is pretty much exactly like 90 minutes of a toddler sticking its stained finger in your face while giggling, “Looka my poopie!” (minus the cute factor). It might have been entertaining to know what Freud would have made of this. But otherwise, “Kuso” can only strike most spectators as unnecessary further proof that infantile behavior from adults is as tedious as it is annoying. It’s a lesson you won’t be glad you learned again.

The various sections of the movie, separated by rolling TV static to suggest “channel surfing,” are diverse in technique but alike in general pointlessness and obsession with juvenile scatology. Supposedly, they’re all taking place after a massive Los Angeles earthquake, although as nearly everyone here has boils, open sores, and such — the better to let those viscous fluids flow — it seems more like some kind of plague has occurred. (Viewers inured to the ick value of humankind can rest assured that savory bowls of worms, squished cockroaches, and various mutational critters also surface here.)

In any case, the vignettes include a young couple in their apartment having sex, licking each other’s pus, and singing the occasional song; an older gibberish-speaking woman

falling down a “hole” where she’s terrorized by a mean girl, then her own monster-baby; a man with what looks like Down syndrome “feeding” a giant bunghole in the woods until it produces a human head; a young woman watching television with two TV-monitor-headed furry beings; and the latter’s visit to a dicey medical clinic, where a man with an embarrassing dysfunction is “cured” (after being on the receiving end of much explosive excrement) by a “doctor” essayed by funk great George Clinton.

From a safe distance, “Kuso” elicits abstract admiration for the dedication (and money) it took to realize these fragmentary ideas in fairly elaborate terms, using a wide range of animation styles — clay, computer, line drawing, puppetry, et al. — as well as live actors on fancifully decrepit if modest sets. But that falls into the realm of impressive negative achievements, like Longest Individual Time Spent Not Emitting an Audible Fart (a title this movie could never, ever lay claim to).

Ellison and company evoke a lot of midnight-movie antecedents, from “200 Motels” and “Eraserhead” to the arch deliberate camp of ’80s New Wave music cinema (“Forbidden Zone,” “Shock Treatment”) to Harmony Korine and Crispin Glover’s geeksploitation cinema. It also bears the imprint of various Cartoon Channel “Adult Swim” shows, which Flying Lotus has contributed music to, while some of the network’s other staple talents (like Tim Heidecker of “Tim and Eric Awesome Show, Great Job!”) turn up on screen. But the referentiality of “Kuso,” its general snark, and even its defensive self-criticism (characters state “I hate this movie!” more than once) fail to make it any more funny or inspired, let alone any less of a shapeless chore to sit through.

That Ellison has a unique, genre-defying musical sensibility is amply demonstrated by the film’s soundtrack (for which Aphex Twin and Akira Yamaoka also created original tracks), by far its best element. Neither is there much cause to quibble in terms of the acting, design, or technical contributors, in that they did as instructed with what professional aplomb could be mustered — good efforts expended to an unfortunate end. “Kuso” can’t exactly be recommended under any circumstances, but it could conceivably be useful under some. For instance, its projection might clear senior citizens from a fire-threatened rest home at a speed they no longer knew they had in them.

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