Court of Appeal on Classification of "Visitor Q"
THE SOCIETY FOR THE PROMOTION OF COMMUNITY STANDARDS INC.
P.O. Box 13-683 Johnsonville
22 August 2005
Court of Appeal directs Board in Classification of “Visitor Q”
The Film and Literature Board of Review meets this afternoon in Auckland at the TVNZ premises in order to deliberate on the judgment of the Court of Appeal (CA59/04) dated 30 June 2005 that set aside the Board’s earlier classification (dated 1/11/02) of the Japanese sex-violence film “Visitor Q”. The Court of Appeal granted the Society’s appeal against the decision of the High Court issued by the Hon. Justice Lowell Goddard that had upheld the Board’s classification. It remitted the matter of the classification of the film to the Board for reconsideration, in the light of the Court’s majority decision. As a consequence, “Visitor Q” does not currently have a classification and cannot be screened in New Zealand or distributed.
In 2002 the Society applied to the Board for a review of the classification of “Visitor Q” as it took strong exception to the R18 classification issued by the Chief Censor’s Office – the Office of Film and Literature Classification (OFLC). The Society submitted that the film should be classified “objectionable” or be subject to cuts on the basis of its “objectionable” and highly offensive content including: gratuitous depictions of necrophilia, sexual activity involving human excrement, incest, rape, sexual violence, corpse mutilation for sexual gratification, extreme lactation, and graphic violence. It highlighted the degrading, demeaning and dehumanising of women in the film’s gratuitous and vile sexual content. The Board, while conceding that the film contained “graphic and disturbing content,” refused to alter the OFLC classification and considered that the film contained “merit” in that it was “an ambitious attempt to describe the disintegration of family”.
In 2002 the Society succeeded in getting the President of the Board, Rotorua-based lawyer Ms Claudia Elliott, to issue an interim restriction order against the film. Consequently it never screened in the Beck’s Incredible Film Festival in 2002 and has yet to screen in New Zealand. (The order expired on 1/11/02 when the Board issued its classification decision).
The recent Court of Appeal decision (CA59/04) - Society For the Promotion of Community Standards Inc [Appellant] v Film and Literature Board of Review [Respondent] – highlighted legal errors in the Board’s classification that had been overlooked by Goddard J. The Board’s decision was found to be legally “flawed” [par. 125] in its failure to address issues related to the protection of the “public good”. Its serious omissions led the Court of Appeal to state: “Without reasons being given [by the Board for its decisions] for what we view as a critical finding of fact, we cannot assess whether the Board has properly construed its role…” [par. 126]
The Society has written to the Minister of Internal Affairs, the Hon. George Hawkins, asking him to remove all the current Board members including the Governor-General’s husband – Peter Cartwright – from the Board. (The Board members are appointed by the Governor-General Dame Silvia Cartwright – wife of Peter Cartwright). This call has been made because of the Board’s decisions to release films like “Visitor Q”, “Baise-Moi” and “Irreversible” (all featuring “objectionable” content) into public cinemas for screening to those 18 years of age and older. The Society has also called for the replacement of the Chief Censor, Bill Hastings, and his deputy, Ms Nicolla McCully, on the same grounds.
The classification decision from the OFLC on “Visitor Q” issued in 2002, is reproduced in the appendix below. It contains explicit descriptions that are not suitable for children or young people and is reproduced, un-edited and in its entirety so that adults can understand why the Society’s has raised serious concerns about the film’s content matter and called for the replacement of all Board members, the Chief Censor and his deputy.
SUMMARY OF REASONS FOR DECISION
Under the Films, Videos, and Publications Classification Act 1993 (FVPC Act)
Type of Publication: Video Recording VHS/NTSC
Title of Publication: Visitor Q
Other Known titles: Visitor “Q” Love Cinema Vol 6
OFLC Ref: 200267
Decision: Objectionable except if the availability of the publication is limited for the purpose of study in a tertiary media or film studies course or as part of the 2002 Incredible Film Festival or as part of a film festival organised by an incorporated film society, and in all cases to persons who have attained the age of 18 years.
Descriptive Note: Graphic content may offend.
The video recording entitled Visitor Q is classified as a restricted publication by age and specified purposes, objectionable unless the availability of the publication is limited for the purpose of study in a tertiary media or film studies course or as part of the 2002 Incredible Film Festival or as part of a film festival organised by an incorporated film society, and in all cases to persons who have attained the age of 18 years. This classification is mainly due to the complex manner in which sex, crime, cruelty and violence are presented for viewer entertainment.
The video recording mainly contains the Japanese feature of the same title, which has a running time of 83 minutes 52 seconds. The first dialogue of an older girl or young woman gives the feature important context from the outset. Immediately following a question on-screen inquiring about sexual activity with "your dad", she addresses the viewer "You want to know the truth about teens today? They tell the future of Japan. That hopeless future."
Set in contemporary Japan, the feature focuses on the four members of a suburban family – an unnamed television reporter, his wife Keiko, daughter Miki (unnamed until the conclusion) and her younger brother Takuya. The man is filming a report on Japanese youth. The woman is battered by their adolescent son, and she uses what appears to be heroin to cope with this situation. She sells her sexual services to fund her drug habit. The son is bullied awfully by three other schoolboys, to the extent that the family home is also repeatedly targeted. The daughter has left home and also sells her sexual services to support herself. The opening scene is a young woman negotiating a sexual transaction with an older man who is suggested and later confirmed to be the daughter and her father. An unnamed stranger, the "visitor Q" of the title, attaches himself to this family group, appearing to be the catalyst that brings them emotionally and physically back together after a series of bizarre and awful events.
The dialogue is all in Japanese and is subtitled in English. A few screens of Japanese text and most credits are also subtitled in English. Moody music is used sparingly, consisting of short pieces played on a traditional Japanese string instrument. Sound effects are used to enhance impact in some situations, invoking a comedic effect associated with East Asian exaggerated action films.
Matters of sex,
crime, cruelty and violence are combined in this publication
to effect a complex and frankly shocking satire on the state
of contemporary Japanese society.
There are no matters under s3(2) of the FVPC Act that deem the video recording objectionable, although it does depict sexual activity between a father and daughter who is ambiguously aged, severe family violence, sexual violence that results in a woman's accidental death, and a man having intercourse with the woman's corpse. Rather than promoting or supporting, or tending to promote or support these activities, the video recording employs such situations to absurdly magnify the moral corruption of individuals and their relationships. The matters of relevance under s3(3) of the FVPC Act are the extent and degree to which, and the manner in which, the video recording depicts or otherwise deals with the infliction of serious physical harm and acts of significant cruelty, sexual violence, and sexual conduct with and by young persons.
Sexual matters feature extensively in the work. Sexual activity is mainly expressly depicted, though it is also occasionally implied. Full nudity of males and females is associated with depictions of sex, though genitals are never seen. Genitals are obscured by shadow or body positioning, or are fuzzed out. Females' breasts are expressly depicted, however they are not overly focussed on by the camera unless the context warrants, such as the scene where the visitor squeezes milk from the mother's breasts.
Scenes involving sex are complex in their meaning in the overall context of the feature. The mother and daughter are both depicted selling sexual services as a means of generating income. The father appears to lack any significant conscience, sense of morality or impulse control; he is the most transgressive of sexual taboos and is both a victim and perpetrator of sexual violence. (The son is not sexual in any manner and appears to be completely unaware of girls' interest in him.) Sex for these characters is associated with eroded morality, shame and guilt, individual manifestations of a disintegrating society.
The voyeuristic eye of the viewer is consciously involved throughout the feature by the omnipresent camera, either operated by the reporter or the visitor. Even the daughter mediates her sexual transaction with her father with the constant clicking of a digital camera. Over the length of the work the intrusive nature of reality television and entertainment masquerading as serious journalism is examined and criticised. During the first scene, for example, the man's perspective is for a time that of a camera in the hands of John Stagliano or John Leslie, prominent American producers of "gonzo" pornography – explicit sex that extends the viewer closely into the action by the close positioning of the camera and the inclusion of the cameraman's hand in the action. The overt, self-conscious presence of the camera, and by extension the viewer, intensifies the exaggerated manner in which the reporter's actions are framed.
The first scene of the feature depicts a sexual transaction that in most respects appears to be between a young sex worker and her middle-aged client, however these two are also indicated to be father and daughter by the preceding question "Have you ever done it with your father?" Their dialogue never includes personal, familiar addresses, though man says he will give the balance of what he owes her "to your mom." For the daughter the presence of her father is no more than an opportunity make money. The man resists the female's invitations for a time, then participates enthusiastically. Much of the activity takes place under covers or is viewed full-scene. He ejaculates within seconds of penetration, for which the daughter ridicules him repeatedly. He is guilty and requests her repeatedly to keep the episode a secret, to which she responds "Whatever." The scene is acutely observed for the nuances of interaction, at turns wryly funny and disturbingly off-hand.
Other scenes of sexual activity are similar in effect, including that involving the man with the corpse. By this time his character is well-developed as exaggeratedly unhinged, his desperation to make an impact on his world pathetic in the extreme. He is to be alternately loathed and pitied. This scene begins with him in his suit and tie, marking out the dead woman for cutting up and disposal. The marking-out includes some preoccupation with the breasts of a sexual nature, that to mutilate the breasts in particular is to express his anger or to punish her for being a woman. He cups his crotch. He has intercourse with the body after talking to the camera (and viewers) about his feelings as a father seeing his son bullied – not angry or sad, but sexually aroused. That the dead woman is available to him seems more significant than that she is dead; "Come on let's do it, I don't care if you're a corpse" he addresses her directly. Intercourse is expressly depicted, and his direct verbal abuse of the female continues. He continues filming and addressing viewers. The body defecates on him and then contracts around his penis so that he cannot withdraw. Sound effects exaggerate this situation. The scene becomes increasingly absurd and grotesque as it cuts back and forth between the panicked man calling for his wife's assistance and scenes of her indoors expressing her breast milk until the kitchen floor is awash with it and an ambiguous fluid that is dripping from between her legs. The pained husband and the excrement-smeared body are bathed in vinegar to extricate him, however when this is unsuccessful his wife injects him with what is probably heroin but which is not revealed to him on his request.
Matters of crime are largely related to the misuse of drugs, although crimes depicted also include incest and acts of violence against people that result in injury and death. The limping, heavily bruised mother is expressly depicted preparing a white powder into a liquid for intravenous injection in some detail, though the injection itself is viewed in a wide-scene shot. Her drug use is seen to relate to her routine terrorisation and battering by her son. Later scenes, in which she looks respectably middle-class in her twin-set and pearls, show her procuring the drug after prostituting her body with a man who shows some tenderness and concern for her injuries – but still pays her a pittance by comparison with the prices quoted earlier by her daughter. While the misuse of drugs for the purpose of relieving physical and emotional pain might be a realistic scenario, the woman is also an exaggerated character, first as a victim and then as an 'enlightened' and retaliating survivor.
The infliction of serious physical harm and acts of significant cruelty are sustained and so exaggerated as to be unrealistic. Violence, on occasion presented in a splatter-horror manner, features extensively throughout the work, as family violence, sexual violence, extreme bullying, deliberate multiple murders and the "visitor" knocking characters on the head with a rock.
The multiple murder of three bullying boys and cutting up of a dead woman are rendered in a comic manner. The parents kill the bullies when they arrive at home and kick the son around on the ground. The father becomes a crazed, avenging samurai figure, taking on the gang half-naked, head bandaged and wielding a spanner and a garden pruning saw. One of the gang is struck across face, and another is bloodlessly sawed for some time in the forehead. The mother dispatches the third boy by throwing a knife that lodges in his head. Their dismembered, bloodless bodies are later shown in the boot of a car. The smiling couple, emotionally reunited, dismember the woman together with a bloodied handsaw. The body is unseen, however the details of what is happening are given in their dialogue.
Cruelty is at times a deliberate part of violence, such as when the boy beats and verbally denigrates his mother and when the three other boys do the same to him. The boy is physically and mentally tormented by three school associates to the extreme of pelting the family home with rocks and fireworks. The gang strike and kick him, tie him up and urinate on him. Money is extorted from him. The boy is completely passive during these scenes, saying nothing. The boy batters his mother with canes or swats for beating rugs. The canes hurt and mark her heavily, leaving unrealistic bleeding wounds on even the well-clothed parts of her body. The woman's husband does not intervene in this household dynamic, preferring to continue with his meals. A sustained assault is interrupted only for the woman to perform her duties in fetching the visitor more food when he requests it. The woman is twice depicted ministering to her injuries, and immediately or soon after using or procuring what appears to be heroin.
Sexual violence is expressly depicted on two occasions. The first is on the reporter, who approaches several youths in the street to interview for his report. The youths, angry at being exploited for cheap television, hustle the reporter aside into a pile of rubbish and take down his trousers and underwear. They insert the microphone in his anus, making jokes about their actions and saying "Howl, bitch! Let me hear you howl!"
The sexual assault and apparently accidental death of a young woman in a road-side ditch is of higher impact visually and emotionally, although it again has an exaggerated manner. The scene is less than a minute and a half in length. The enraged reporter assaults her after she rejects him and his plan to film his son being brutalised. The pair are implied to have been sexual partners. His tirade against her indicates his humiliation at being struck and fought off while the visitor records everything on camera. The man tears off the woman's clothes then penetrates her digitally. She screams, cries, and struggles ineffectually. Her naked breasts are visible through some of this sequence. The man holds the woman by her throat for less than 30 seconds, after which time she dies, somewhat unrealistically. The man is surprised that she is dead. The "visitor" who has been filming all of this in a dispassionate manner drops the camera in the grass.
Sexual conduct with and by a young person is ambiguously presented in the first scene. The daughter appears to refer to herself among "teen[ager]s", however this reference may mean that she is 18 or 19 as much as 17 years of age or less. This ambiguity adds to the complexity of the work, however it is not a focus of the interaction. Her demeanour is candid and confident, suggesting that she is a young adult.
The dominant effect of the publication is a complex, multi-layered satire of society in contemporary Japan, using the exaggerated characters of a wholely dysfunctional middle-class family to magnify the characteristics of the larger group. In this way the feature comments on violence, sexual politics and cultural misogyny, popular media and reality television, information and communication technology, and the cynical low expectations of young Japanese for their future. The main characters are extreme caricatures. The action is so exaggerated as to be surreal, making disturbing situations comical. The feature is shocking for its audacity to expressly depict what are for most people repugnant incidents.
In determining the classification of this publication, some consideration has been given to the value the feature has in relation to artistic and cultural matters. In the evidence available to the Classification Office, director Takashi Miike is an emerging independent Japanese film-maker with a prolific output for the Japanese domestic film and television market. His work appears to fall mainly in the action/horror genres (with gory, splatter-style violence), or Japanese "exploitation cinema". Audition (also known as Odishon, OFLC Ref 100314) was restricted by the Classification Office to adult viewers on account of complex treatments of horror, violence, torture and cruelty, and child abuse with a sexual element. The summary of reasons for the decision notes that "[t]o the extent that the filmmaker allows anything to become clear, the feature makes a statement about Japanese sexual politics that provides a context for the final, gruelling scenes." In the Classification Office's assessment, the director's interest in exposing exploitative and abusive gender relations in Japan resounds in Visitor Q. The feature is technically cleverly executed, with filming and editing techniques that allow viewers into characters' perspectives and that emphasise the surreal experience of their unbalanced worlds. Viewers experience various turns of sympathy and revulsion for the characters, most particularly for the unnamed father.
The feature is primarily intended as viewer entertainment. Due to the character of the material, which is complex, satirical, transgressive and likely to be highly offensive even to many adults, an adult audience appears intended. Interest in this feature in New Zealand is likely to be limited to those persons with specific interests in international alternative film-making, contemporary Japanese cinema and exploitation cinema.
The feature is intended for public exhibition at The Incredible Film Festival to be held in Auckland and Wellington during April and May 2002. Although the feature is presented as a video recording for the purposes of classification, it is likely to be screened at a cinema in reel film format; projection of video recordings onto screens results in loss of picture quality, with effects such as bleeding and separation of colour and some loss of image resolution. The festival director states that the purpose of this festival is "to bring a demographically and psychographically disparate audience together to witness populist foreign cinema that otherwise w[ould] not be seen by New Zealand audiences." Also relevant to the availability of this video recording, the director states that "no video release is planned for the titles. […] All the films in this Festival will not be making a return visit to New Zealand."
Given all the characteristics of the publication and circumstances relevant to the intended use of the publication, the Classification Office is of the opinion that the availability of the video recording is likely to be injurious to the public good unless it is restricted to adults in settings of bona fide film festival screenings or tertiary film studies. The express depictions of an incestuous sexual liaison, sexual violence and sexual conduct with a dead person's body have a distinct context in the feature, from which they may not be removed without reducing the intended reading of these events to sexualised episodes for viewers with a prurient interest in such activities.
The relevant provisions of the New Zealand Bill of Rights Act 1990 have also been considered in reaching this decision. Having taken into account the criteria of s3 of the FVPC Act, the Classification Office considers the restriction on free expression imposed by the classification is demonstrably justified in a free and democratic society, and is no more than is necessary to prevent likely injury to the public good.