It was always safe to assume that the directorial debut of musician Flying Lotus (a.k.a. Steven Ellison) was going to be a little out there. That’s just his way. The actual film, ‘Kuso’, is somehow even more fucked up and freaked out than anyone could have expected.
This is the type of movie where a shot of a boil-covered Tim Heidecker (of ‘Tim and Eric’) popping out of a toilet qualifies as one of the quieter and friendlier scenes. It’s hard to determine exactly what Ellison trying to communicate with this episodic dive into the sickest images hiding in the deepest recesses of his imagination but, for better or worse, the results are impossible to forget.
It all kicks off with a strange little newscast music video explaining that a massive earthquake has struck Los Angeles, leading to puss-filled bubbly boil mutations forming on the faces of the survivors. You know, that old story. From there, things get strange. The movie doesn’t really have a narrative, just interlocking shorts with stories. The most straightforward involves a white-eyed woman called The Buttress who has been kidnapped by two friendly mop monsters (one voiced by Hannibal Buress!) and impregnated by a dude who lives in her toilet (Heidecker). This prompts a trip to the doctor (George Clinton) to get an abortion, at which point she’s asked to choose her own coat hanger. Of all the interconnected shorts, that’s the easiest to follow. Others involve animated interludes designed purely for shock value and aesthetic pleasure. The entire movie falls somewhere between those two extremes. It would be beautiful if it weren’t so disgusting.
Ellison (along with frequent collaborator and cult animator Salad Fingers – and if you know that name, you’ll get a rough idea of what to expect) is working from a place of pure stream-of-consciousness creation here. The film is filled with references to work that inspired the artists, from David Lynch to ‘Tim and Eric’, classical surrealism to ‘Mortal Kombat’. It’s all shoved into a blender and spit into densely unsettling images designed to provoke. Often it’s quite funny, which helps. Ellison and company may have carefully crafted ‘Kuso’ to fit an aesthetic goal, but they haven’t taken themselves too seriously. The movie wants to tickle your brain and make you gag, but it also wants to entertain. I suppose that’s fair.
It unfolds with either an Adult Swim sense of ADHD pacing or a desire to go nowhere quickly. In a weird way, the film feels like a merger between outrage shock art films of old (such as ‘Salo’) and the internet generation’s tendency to mix all culture into a provocative bad joke without much meaning beyond the desire to get a reaction. It’s a challenging film for a highbrow audience and a filthy romp for a kid who just wants to see the most disgusting images ever conceived without wasting time on plot or purpose. There’s something admirable about the purity of the exercise and the audacity of the imagery. Whether or not it adds up to anything worthwhile or is actually enjoyable to watch… Well, that’s a trickier question. There’s a chance that not even Flying Lotus could provide a satisfying response.
There’s no doubt that ‘Kuso’ is fascinating. The casting alone thrusts such strange performers against each other that you can’t turn away, even when (and often because) they don’t really belong together. Every sequence somehow manages to top the gross-out success of the last. The animation is amazing; the practical rubber effects are stunningly repulsive. The film is incredibly well made and achieves its goals of freaking viewers the fuck out, but most people will likely flee for the exit or grab a barf bag before it’s over. ‘Kuso’ is an endurance test, not just for its disgusting imagery but also in testing the patience of viewers willing to stick around to see where it’s heading. (Spoiler: Nowhere in particular.)
This is likely a film that will be best appreciated in isolated YouTube clips where viewers don’t have to stomach it for long. Perhaps that’s the point. These days, few movies receive more attention than those that can be reduced to scenes primed for viral video infamy. That’s almost the best response that Steven Ellison could expect for a film like ‘Kuso’. Even if a masterpiece like Pier Palo Pasolini’s ‘Salo’ were released today, most people would only know it from a shared YouTube video entitled “The Craziest Shit Eating Scene You’re Ever Seen.” (Note: Just checked. The title’s different but the clip exists and has been viewed 462,000 times.) That’s where we’re at as a culture these days. In that space, making something as nonsensically outrageous as ‘Kuso’ is exactly what some people need, especially the weirdoes of the world.