Film Review: Flying Lotus’ WTF-inducing ‘Kuso’ is not for weak stomachs

“Kuso” is basically the Japanese-language approximation of “bullshit,” and it’s primarily used to describe internet culture and trivial things of low-quality. Kuso is also the debut feature film of Steven Ellison, here credited as “Steve”, but perhaps better known as Flying Lotus, a free-jazz electronica hero and nephew of John and Alice Coltrane.

Kuso, the film, premiered at Sundance, which is where you might have heard about it in the first place, as members of the audience walked out during its premiere, and you know what happens when that happens at a film festival: Legends are made (John Waters and his barf bags at screenings of Pink Flamingos come to mind). Kuso is as utterly disgusting and hard to watch as you’ve heard- it deserves a trigger warning, and it especially deserves further research on your part to make sure that it’s alright for you to watch. Kuso, however, isn’t totally what you’ve heard it is.

Kuso is Russian Roulette made cinematic, made by a give-no-fucks auteur looking to place the noise in his aesthetically-minded head on screens everywhere, and it incites and compels in the same way early Lynch and Jodorowsky did, at least on a visceral level. On some level, it’s best experienced as a hallucination, a dreary haze in between the hours of four and five a.m, at the time when you can tell whether that’s your cat on the couch or if it’s a pus-covered maggot eating it’s way through a giant ear, all electrified by the dead air of late night television. It’s a fantastically hard film to write about after one viewing, because there’s so much interesting stuff to dig into, beneath all the surface-level gore and grossness that’ll scare the cineastes and the film professors away from the text and back into the MGM archives. And so much of it is experiential, so much so that it’ll actually rob most the movie of its carefully-realized power if I tell you anything about it beyond cursory warnings and details. It’s a truly excellent midnight movie, full of the hallucinatory ecstasy that embodies the spirit of the genre.

Word to the wise: God help you if you see this movie under the influence.

Kuso is ostensibly a tale of post-apocalypse Los Angeles, after “the Big One” has finally split the Earth and killed tons of people (and seemingly ripped a hole in reality itself). This world’s introduced to us by the News Pirate (LA rapper Busdriver) via a braveura musical number at the top of the film. He bookends the experience, offering both an affirmatory prayer and thoughtful benediction to the five tales of LA gone mad within.

In one, a young schoolboy (Shane Carpenter) in a pastoral wasteland wanders into the wood and meets a creature who wants to eat his shit. In another, a man’s (Zach Fox) afraid of boobs, and seeks out a doctor (George Clinton) to cure him at the Coathanger Clinic (yep), where he discovers that the cure is a little more complicated and scatological than he was led to believe. In the third, a woman with two extra-dimensional roommates (Donnell Rawlings and Hannibal Buress) discovers that she’s pregnant with the child of a bizarro pervert (Tim Heidecker), and has to decide whether or not she’s going to keep it. In the fourth, a woman (Mali Matsuda) journeys through realities in order to find her son. In the fifth, a couple (Iesha Coston and Oumi Zumi) in the aftermath of this chaos comes to terms with their new fetishes as they try to make it work.

There’s a tactile and sensory ugliness to this film that’s both repulsive and enticing. All of the characters in the film are united by their boils and zits and gross visages, a sort of visual realization of how zits and other gross things actually feel on the human body, given how perspective and sense affects our perception of our bodies. The locations, as well, are a kind of twisted burlesque of modern movie locations — blood-red bedrooms lit in soft orange light, the dirty-green doctor’s office, a cave filled with modern detritus and television static — they’re compelling on their own. The color palette in this film is astounding, and the three credited cinematographers deserve credit for their hearty constitutions and commitment to realizing their director’s vision.

And the fluids. God help us all, the fluids. This will probably be what causes you to cancel your Shudder subscription. Steve mixes cartoonish sound design with the exaggerated effects work, and boy, it’ll fuck you up. I have a very strong stomach and Jesus fucking Christ this movie got to me in the worst way. Still, though — it’s just so gross and weird that you can’t wait to see where Steve’s going to take it next, and it helps that Kuso is genuinely shocking from moment to moment. This gives it such an air of unpredictability that makes it utterly compelling, so that when you get to an Terry Gilliam-via-4chan animated transition between segments, you’re eagerly awaiting for Steve to load in the next round and give the cylinder a spin.

Steve has plenty of trouble honing in on a specific theme (abstract or otherwise), which is fair, given that his interests lie in provocation more than anything else and that he’s covering such diverse subject matter in his three narratives, but when it works the material really sings. Much has been made about this film being a “nightmare,” but the dream-logic grossness isn’t necessarily grim or full of horror in the way that you might expect in a lesser movie. There’s a lovely strain of urban fantasy running throughout the whole film, nowhere better glimpsed than in the pastoral shit-smearing segment, and it’s something that wouldn’t feel out of place in garish and truly gothic fairytales. At its heart, there’s an ample and beautiful loneliness, and occasionally it brings this emotion right to the surface. The fourth of the four segments (though it might be the first?), about a young couple who learn to accept each other’s quirks (and, uh, sentient boils) and establish a family unit is beautifully realized, extremely funny, and occasionally quite tender, even though you’ll probably want to keep a trash can nearby. You know, just in case. All of it’s held together by an impressive soundtrack, featuring contributions from Aphex Twin and Thundercat, as well as a good deal of new music from Steve himself, and it’s an interesting complement to everything unfolding on screen.

Is Kuso a movie I ever plan on revisiting? Probably not. It’s an extraordinarily difficult movie to watch, though perhaps on subsequent viewings it’ll lose some of that raw power and open itself up to more pointed analysis. But it might not be Steve’s intention for you to watch it a second time, given how central the initial revulsion is to the film’s success. This is best seen with an audience, so that you can watch the walkouts and form a central bond with the people around you who make it to the ending, which features a gorgeously devastating slam by Busdriver, and his speedy repetition and smooth voice unites you freaks in a hallowed sense of shared understanding. And you can make this experience happen at your home, too, if you so want it.

All I know is that there’s nothing like Kuso out there in the current landscape, and that if you’re brave enough you should seek it out. Just don’t blame me if you need to get your carpet cleaned and your mind wiped. Good luck.

Kuso comes to Shudder this Friday, July 21. Follow Nick Johnston on Twitter @onlysaysficus.