Features Live Action Movies



Director – Steven Shainberg – 2002 – US – Cert. 18 – 106m


A Snake Of June (Rokugatsu No Hebi, 六月の蛇)

Director – Shinya Tsukamoto – 2002 – Japan – Cert. 18 – 77m


Double DVD review originally published in Third Way, February 2004.

The cover image (rear view of a female figure in tight, short skirt and stockinged legs, bent down, hands grasping ankles) suggests titillation, but the American production Secretary is actually a serious drama – albeit one laced with a healthy dose of black humour – about a sadomasochistic relationship. But beneath its fetishistic surface, it is something else – an exploration into why two specific people (and why they in particular rather than any others) make one flesh. And how that works for them if the two people are initially in some way damaged (as we all are).

Although from a very different culture, its Japanese counterpart A Snake Of June – made by the experimental cyberpunk auteur Tsukamoto (of Tetsuo: The Iron Man fame) – explores much the same territory. Being small, low budget productions frees both films from mass, multiplex mainstream audience demands, allowing their directors to instead tackle (inter)personal relationship issues in depth.

In Secretary, Lee Holloway (Maggie Gyllenhaal), daughter of an alcoholic father and overprotective mother, regularly inflicts cuts upon herself. Released from a mental institution, she lands a job as secretary to repressed lawyer E. Edward Grey (James Spader on top form), who turns out to be a demanding boss. He insists she stop cutting herself, inflicting upon her by way of substitution his own brand of physical punishment – as a direct result of which, the pair grow together in intimacy. Lee finally flees marriage to childhood sweetheart Peter (Jeremy Davies) and, in bridal dress, plants herself at the lawyer’s instruction, her hands on his desk, her feet on his office floor, as a ritual of proving her love for him.

In A Snake Of June, a mysterious phone caller (played by director Tsukamoto) harasses mental health call centre worker Rinko (Asuka Kurosawa) and sends her an envelope marked ‘Your Husband’s Secrets’’ containing photographs of her pleasuring herself. To avoid her husband seeing these, she must ‘do what you want’ – in fact an intrusive sexual demand that Rinko enact a very private personal fantasy in a very public shopping mall. The caller takes further surreptitious photos, the last of which reveals, from a defect in Rinko’s breast, that she has breast cancer. But her husband Shigehiko (Yuji Koutari) baulks at the idea of mastectomy.

This same husband is later shown as part of a group of Japanese men, abducted and held captive, dressed in conical tube headgear causing tunnel vision and put in a room to watch a live sex/drowning show – a powerful and disturbing image suggesting the collective Japanese male psyche is in a bad way indeed.

There’s stranger still to come. Despite discussing minor domestic issues, the couple appear isolated from one another, an isolation reinforced by the fact of their city’s constant rain. Yet the rain, often seen falling on plants and mirrored by sweat on Rinko’s face, at the same time presages fecundity. The couple’s relationship has shifted to something more positive by the time of their one climactic scene of coitus in which Rinko’s cancerous breast is sometimes present and sometimes amputated, indicating an ambiguity towards the question of its removal.

Both DVDs come with additional DTS soundtracks and the Secretary extras include a highly instructive commentary (by screenwriter Erin Cressida Wilson and director Shainberg) to unpack that film further.

Reasonably described as extreme cinema, both films employ ritual to explore a woman’s monogamous relationship; in each case, the option of an alternative male partner (Secretary‘s unsuitable boyfriend, Snake’s phone prankster) is never far off. And despite content that many may find unpalatable, somehow their use of ritual / relationship / healing imagery to show imperfect men and women in search of the perfect relationship resonates strongly with biblical images of (perfect) Christ and His (present imperfect but future restored to perfection) Bride.

Trailer (Secretary):

Trailer (A Snake Of June, Third Window Films):

Double DVD review originally published in Third Way, February 2004.

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