The following is one of the entries from my 100 Greatest Asian Films list, which I invite you to visit on this site if you haven’t already done so. — Dennis
A companion-piece to the swooning, painfully immediate Ai no corrida (In the Realm of the Senses, 1976), Ai no borei (Empire of Passion) again involves a passionate illicit couple, but is distanced and lacks the oversaturated colors of its predecessor, not to mention the slicing off of an erect penis.
Again, Nagisa Oshima (brilliantly) directs. In a rural village in the late 1800s, a young man convinces his mistress that they should murder her spouse, a rickshaw driver. They dump the body down a well and continue their clandestine affair. But the husband comes back in two ways: as a communal memory, as the villagers wonder how he could stay away in Tokyo year after year; as a ghost, haunting the killers. The latter might be a guilty projection; or it could be a ghost.
The former possibility is in keeping with the film’s understanding of human behavior. Oshima’s ghost story relates individual acts to communal justice. This “justice” suppresses its own real motives, sublimating these, much as the ghost may be a sublimated form of the couple’s guilty regret. Oshima already explored the possibility that capital punishment echoes ancient barbarism in Death by Hanging (1968). Empire of Passion, in this instance ironically referring to society as it metes out what it has convinced itself is justice, involves a painfully protracted punishment for the offending pair. Oshima goes further, suggesting (compellingly) that society desires, even requires, hideous crime for the sake of both the cathartic release and the reassuring sense of its own justice that the brutal punishment of wrongdoers provides.
But, above all, it is the form of this burrowing work that captivates: dark, mysterious, eerily beautiful color images exquisitely lensed by Yoshio Miyajima, the cinematographer of Masaki Kobayashi’s Kaidan (1964).
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