Thursday, May 19, 2011

Movie Review: Sugar Sweet

This blog has been half-baked these past couple of weeks, and I apologize for that (again). This time it was computer trouble, but that's been resolved. Anyway....

While Sugar Sweet is touted as, "the first Japanese film to be made by and about lesbians", I didn't know about it until I saw it in the Gay & Lesbian section of Netflix streaming last week. (It premiered at the Tokyo Lesbian & Gay Film Festival in 2001, before playing at other queer and non-queer film festivals around the world, eventually being licensed by Wolfe Video.) Sugar Sweet feels like an earnest attempt to provide Japanese lesbian audiences with something better than the miserable crap that usually passes for Japanese cinema starring queer women, but I still can't say that it was good.

Naomi is a cash-strapped, aspiring filmmaker in a lose-lose situation. She pays the bills by directing movies for a porn company, where her bosses berate her for trying to be too artsy with the porn she makes, in her attempts to infuse it with a lesbian (as opposed to "lesbian") perspective. To be fair to them, her insistence on shooting something high-minded on their dime is the equivalent of applying to cook at an Italian restaurant, then getting annoyed that your boss won't let you make Chinese. Aside from her dippy best friend Azusa, Naomi's lesbian acquaintances think poorly of her for making lesbian porn for men. (From the standpoint that in Japan, lesbianism is most often conflated with perversion and porn, and Naomi's company can validate the images they present in their "lesbian" porn by saying, "Hey, a lesbian made this!")

Through a dating site called "Lavender Paradise", Naomi meets someone named "Sugar", who encourages Naomi's film-making dreams as they exchange email throughout the movie.

Suddenly, Naomi is in charge of a reality show. (Whuh?) Each season follows two people who "happen" to meet and start dating, and the producers want the newest season to star a lesbian couple to boost the show's ratings. Naomi casts Azusa (who has a girlfriend, but Naomi thinks it's harmless since she'll just be acting) and a random woman she sees at a bar, Miki, who works as a company manager by day and an "exotic dancer" at a lesbian club by night. Miki hates the idea of a serious relationship, and Azusa, despite her relationship with her girlfriend, starts having feelings for Miki.

After Miki dumps Azusa on camera (according to the script, Azusa was supposed to dump Miki, to end the show differently from what the audience would expect), Azusa apologizes to her girlfriend and Miki reveals herself to Naomi as "Sugar." The movie ends with Naomi and Miki flirting, Miki resigning from her company job, and Naomi able to create the movie of her dreams now that she has won a film grant.

For the ending alone, this movie is loads better than Kakera and Topless, but it still feels leaden. The acting is so-so, but the actors only have a so-so script to work with. Sugar Sweet has obvious autobio elements, being about a young director who really, really wants to make a groundbreaking lesbian movie, so I feel a little bad about my critique here. (Yes, I bashed Kakera's director's autobio impulses, but that was because she was writing her experiences over someone else's story.)

The cinematography is drab, frequently using garishly colored lighting, dim lighting, slow motion, and a sugar high-like excess of camera movement (e.g. at the beginning of one scene, the camera spins around a room, rendering it into a blur, quickly pauses and cuts a few times, then spins around some more), unmitigated by its awful soundtrack. (This movie's lackluster direction became most painfully apparent when I nodded off during the Big Sex Scene.) Additionally, Sugar Sweet never explains how Naomi suddenly became the director of a TV show, and the porn company thing, which seems like it was just tacked on to the beginning of the movie to make us feel sorry for Naomi, suddenly becomes extraneous.

You can definitely do worse than Sugar Sweet, but you can also do much better if you're looking for a satisfying live action Japanese lesbian movie. (Love My Life, pretty much. If there are other good examples, I'd love to know about them.)

Story: C-
Cinematography: D+
Overall: C-


Erica Friedman said...

I saw this movie, of, gosh, 10 years ago? At the SF LGBT film festival. I hand't realized it went to a English-language DVD.

It was shown with a short called "Three-Second Melancholfy" which where I first heard the phrase "More than friends, less than lovers."

SugarSweet had a few good scenes, but kind of fell flat somewhere in the middle.

Katherine Hanson said...

@Erica- "It was shown with a short called "Three-Second Melancholfy" which where I first heard the phrase "More than friends, less than lovers."" <- Interesting. (I can imagine how unsatisfying that movie was.) I haven't been to an lgbt film fest, but it must have been more fun checking out the film there.

Sugar Sweet did have some interesting bits (like the implicit commentary about reality TV, with everything in Naomi's show being scripted), but...yeah. "Meh" movie overall.

Erica Friedman said...

Actually, "Three-Minute Melancholy" was funny and a little bittersweet.

I'll never be a filmfest kinda gal. Films are my least favorite medium.