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Pick of IFFR: Sexual Drive, directed by Yoshida Kota

Friday 19 February 2021, by Tommy Hodgson

International Film Festival Rotterdam had some dazzling pieces in its programme this year, but Sexual Drive seriously stands out in its ambition and creative execution. Japanese director Yoshida Kota’s odd but undeniably endearing film is triumphant in illustrating the intimate link between food and sex, at the sweaty intersection of lust and repressed desires. Sexual Drive is a striking piece in that the plot is three separate vignettes, all involving a seemingly sudden and dramatic emotional crisis between different characters. Yet the thread running through all of them is the revelation of the intricate erotica of everyday food, which is often perilous to the main protagonists.

The first story deals with a distant marriage. The devoted but physically unavailable husband Enatsu invites his wife Masumi’s supposed lover over to talk, only to be confronted with lurid details of her sexual appetite. The man in question, Kurita, is a hypnotic character, a strange, devilish figure who shows up during all the tales to sew the seeds of food worship and sexual liberation in the unsure protagonists.

In an open and disarming manor, Kurita discusses Masumi’s desire for nattu, a fermented soybean dish, as part and parcel of her sensuality, a fact totally unbeknownst to the husband. This gives way to the well-executed closing scene of the short - Masumi returning home, eating the sticky dish in front of her shocked husband, who is forced to confront the novel idea that this apparently mundane food is in fact a substitute for, and part of, her sexual appetite. This is accentuated by the director’s masterful shots of Masumi eating the soybeans and rice in bright natural lighting, with close-ups of her mouth gently caressing the sticky food, licking her lips orgasmically to Enatsu’s comical bewilderment.

Versions of such confrontational scenarios are played out in the other two stories but with more dynamic settings: a car accident which turns into an sadomasochistic ultimatum, and the pained discovery of a dark, noir-esque noodle bar full of slurping men and a specific, tantalising ramen dish. Kota’s direction never falters in keeping an interesting pace to these mini-narratives, building up to an exciting and uncomfortable crescendo of sexual and emotional release. Kurita’s role in each tale is always intriguing - he serves as both a taunt and representation of the buried sexual proclivities of the repressed characters.

The food politics of all three tales are expressive, turning traditional Japanese dishes into objects of sexual craving and unfulfilled fantasy. In this, food and sex are one and the same, things which have been dismissed or sidelined in these characters’ lives only to come to the fore by the menacing and manipulative presence of Kurita. There is suddenly romance in the ramen, fervour in the tofu. Sexual Drive operates as more than just food porn, but it takes the deep-held pleasure we humans have for food to captivating extremes. It not only exposes our close relationship with food in a distressing and weird way, but illustrates its shocking potential as a substitute for genuine human intimacy.

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