Kuso (2017)

Kuso first published by VODzilla.co

“Holy shit!”

“I fucking hate this movie.”

“What? Nigga, eat ass! This is art!”

“This is garbage! Art is garbage!”

A woman (Bethany Schmitt) – referred to in the credits as ‘the Buttress’ – smokes up on her sofa as she watches TV, and is emphatically unimpressed by what she sees on the screen: masked figures vomiting over each other, and then a penis getting repeatedly stabbed with a knife. Her two companions are much more accepting of this gross, depraved footage, happy to acknowledge its aesthetic side, but then again, they are jive-talking bong-toting, shit-flinging “transdimensional beings”, with multi-hued fur for skin and TV screens for faces – and they might also just be a manifestation of her own unhinged id. In any case, they will soon be helping her shoot her own similar video of her stalker Phil (Tim Heidecker).

If the woman has boils all over her face and dead zombie eyes, then everyone in the postlapsarian world of Kuso is marked by deformity and ailment. Perhaps one of the least scarred, and initially most normal seeming, is Manuel (Zack Fox), who meets the Buttress in the waiting room of a health clinic. Once, though, he has received special therapy for his “fear of tits” via hallucinogenic juice from a giant cockroach (named ‘Mr Quiggle’) that lives up the anus of ‘Dr’ Clinton (played, improbably, by genuine Parliamentarian of funk George Clinton), you will be questioning even Manuel’s – and your own – level-headedness, and wondering where exactly the boundary lies between art and garbage.

All these incidents come from Mr Quiggle – one of four interwoven episodes (plus trippy, crudely computer-animated interludes) that make up the monstrous mosaic of this feature debut by multi-genre music producer Steve Ellison, aka Flying Lotus. Each episode is very different, but they are all unified by a thematic focus on graphic sex, arseholes (both kinds!), bugs, Cronenbergian metamorphoses, and elements of self-reflexive metacinema. In Smear, for example, mute schoolboy Charlie – played creepily by the adult Shane Carpenter – regularly bunks off class to go shit in the woods, and smears his stool over a creature inside an anus-mouthed egg as part of his own adolescent rites of (back) passage. In Sock, Charlie’s scatological adventures have been reduced to a low-bit videogame which a woman (Mali Matsuda) plays to while away the hours. She has been trapped without food by an earthquake, has already lost her baby, and is starting to lose her mind, as she struggles, with help from a talking cockroach, to crawl her way out of this hellhole through a ‘rear entrance’ – even as her efforts transform, midway, into a grotesque sit-com (called Sock), complete with its own opening credits and live studio audience. Bookending all this is Royal, in which married couple Keeneth and Missy (Oumi Zumi and Iesha Coston) play out consensual sexual scenarios, before discovering that there are three in this marriage, and learning to love their menage à trois, warts and all. It is a perved-up riff on Bruce Robinson’s How To Get Ahead In Advertising (1989), climaxing in cum-stained closing credits à la Takashi Miike’s Ichi the Killer (2001). In fact Royal started it all, beginning its life in 2016 as a standalone short written by Ellison and David Firth (Salad Fingers).

The events of Kuso ostensibly unfold in the aftermath of a devastating earthquake that has hit Los Angeles. “I’m telling you, it’s this fucking earthquake shit,” Manuel declares, “Shit’s fucked up everybody’s head.” Yet the Buttress’ response (“I mean, it could be other stuff too”) points to the metaphorical resonances of this seismic disaster. For the earthquake appears to have brought to the surface all the detritus of a nation’s collective unconscious: its oral and anal fixations, its perversions, its inner sickness, as well as irrepressible issues of race and sex.  Accordingly, Kuso falls into that small subgenre of post-apocalyptic films – like Harmony Korine’s Gummo (1997), Richard Kelly’s Southland Tales (2006) and Ryan Gosling’s Lost River (2014) – that expose America’s weird cultural underbelly. Perhaps, though, what Kuso most resembles is Kevin Jarvis’ gonzo pseudo-documentary A Dangerous Cure (2014), which also posited the spread of a strange sickness that turned some into zombies and others into sex maniacs, and which similarly focused on unaddressed social injustices which have become the inheritance of the African-American community.

Kuso has garnered quite the reputation after walkouts at its 2017 Sundance première, and its categorisation in a Verge magazine review as “the grossest movie ever made”. Ellison’s film is puerile yet adult, and shocking as much for its admixture of fart gags with poetry as for its body (function) horror and sexually graphic (although certainly not pornographic) imagery. It is jaw-droppingly funny, as all its abject scenes turn into oddball farce. “Don’t fear the faeces,” recommends an enlarged talking insect, in words that modulate our reception of the film. For if you can hold down your sense of repulsion and abhorrence, this is a film where artistry is found down the drain, where the low ascends to meet the high, and where the shit is quite possibly holy.

Summary: Toilet humour, fart jokes and anal obsessions make the uncategorisable but shocking Kuso something of a royal flush. Handle with care.

© Anton Bitel