Whatever you do, don't call Snakes and Earrings a Cronenberg baby. Though Yukio Ninagawa's horror-drama — screening tonight at the New York Asian Film Festival — is about body modification, it is definitely not one of the many bastard descendants of David Cronenberg's brand of "body horror." While Cronenberg invests his films with a foreboding cynicism regarding flesh, Ninagawa treats his characters' simultaneous reverence and disgust with their bodies with perhaps too much earnestness. Unlike Cronenberg, he's earnestly emotionally invested in watching Louis (Yuriko Yoshitaka) slip deeper and deeper into her masochistic obsession with piercings and tattoos.
This doesn't meant that Ninagawa doesn't exploit the cringe-worthiness of Louis' character-defining menage a trois with Ama (Kengo Kora), her naive enabler and boyfriend, and Shiva (Arata), her melancholic sadistic lover. Like an over-serious carnival barker, Ninagawa introduces us to the world of body modification by having Ama show off his snake-like split tongue, sticking it out and wiggling its two forked tips. Later, Shiva's tattoo needles are highlighted as if they're the blades of a serial killer, rather than the tools of a self-styled artist. They're menacing looking-blades, snapped into place with a fetishistic precision that begs to be seen as the build-up to an act of violence that's never delivered.
These infrequent flourishes of impending cruelty are however not representative of the matter-of-factness that Ninagawa invests in Snakes and Earrings's treatment of the body. The only overt signs of harm inflicted onto Louis, who in this case willingly transforms from a curious shrinking violet into an addicted dependent — "The only time I ever really feel alive is when I'm in pain" Louis says later to no one in particular — are the stifled sobs she emits while having sex with Shiva. There's no bloodletting at any point in the film, though the sleazy, dungeon-like appearance of Shiva's tattoo parlor suggests that that could change at any moment. Instead, Ninagawa delivers a stripped-down presentation of recreational mutilation that, out of a perverse necessity, he is forced into presenting through hyper-real close-ups of writhing, disembodied body parts in a pained state of metamorphosis.
Ninagawa's need to be taken serious has its obvious limits, specifically in how he insists on having his characters verbally tell us everything that they're feeling right before they physically show us those same emotions. In his zeal to plumb the psychological depth of his characters, he rarely achieves more than a superficial type of resonance and winds up mostly speaking truths that would make for great NIN lyrics. Still, that sloppiness stems from a kind of urgency that compelled me to keep watching, and I'm very glad I did.