KUSO (2017) – A REVIEW BY RYAN MARSHALL

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As it turns out, even three years after his masterful Tibetan-tinged acid jazz odyssey YOU’RE DEAD, Flying Lotus is still very much in the headspace of bringing the beauty of our shared fate out with the existential anxiety and the bile. The unapologetically ambitious electronic musician (real name Steven Ellison, credited on-screen simply as Steve) seems to have dug about as deep as one can go before approaching critical damage with his marvelously grotesque directorial debut, and the results are as hypnotic as they are genuinely horrifying.

The framework for this loose tapestry of absurdist revulsion is remarkably simple at its core. KUSO begins in the aftermath of an LA earthquake of apocalyptic proportions and proceeds to subject the audience to a seemingly never-ending stream of increasingly disturbing vignettes. These tantalizing tales flow into one-another like transmissions via vintage television sets, the impression being that everything and yet nothing at all is connected.

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In one story, an impressively mustached man (Zack Fox) seeks to cure his fear of large breasts via the psychoactive juices of a cockroach named Mr. Quiggles that resides in the rectum of a seedy doctor (George Clinton) and can only be coaxed out with a song. In another, horrorcore rapper The Buttress gets high with furry inter-dimensional entities (voiced by Hannibal Burress and Donnell Rawlings) and ponders artistry and abortion simultaneously. Elsewhere, a young boy (Shane Carpenter) smears his feces onto a strange blob-like creature growing in the forest, which brings us to the creation of the new world. Or something like that.

Throughout his musical career, and especially on the aforementioned Captain Murphy album, Ellison has never held back when it comes to getting down with his bad, bad self; as a filmmaker, what with KUSO’s rampant display of animalistic sexual fetishism and exceedingly surreal animated segments (courtesy of Jimmy Screamerclauz and Cool 3D World), he simply turns this up to eleven. This is the kind of film that drags you into its weird world mercilessly, and with little regard for conventional standards of “good taste”.

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There’s a considerable amount of kick that the filmmaker seems to derive from riling up his audience – as would be the case with just about anyone willing to entertain such bizarro atrocities in the first place – and yet the film is clearly made out of joy rather than spite. Sure, it’s consistently abrasive and often just plain gross, but it’s also genuinely amusing and at least makes conscious efforts to be subversive. It’s more REN & STIMPY than torture porn, and Ellison is able to make more than a few astute observations in regards to the African-American experience which effectively compliment the excess.

Indeed, a talking boil voiced by David Firth (creator of SALAD FINGERS) which appears on a woman’s (Iesha Coston) neck and promptly felates her boyfriend (Oumi Zumi) isn’t a particularly pleasant notion in theory, but viewers who have made it that far will know whether or not it’s possible to find humor in such things. On the opposite end, a story involving a sickly Asian woman (Mali Matsuda) searching for her lost child behind closed walls is anything but droll, and features some of the most disconcerting imagery on display (legs growing on legs, munching on concrete which results in the loss of multiple teeth, etc).

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The film is probably best described as an absurdist anti-comedy; true to this, not every joke sticks the landing, but enough of them- such as a scene in which Fox’s character attempts to have a conversation with a particularly noisy blow up sex doll – hit their mark just right. In a way, it’s sort of charming that something this transgressive could also possess so much unorthodox warmth. In the end, it’s a film about regression and rebirth, about accepting the ugliness that lies within and making it work, and anyone whose sensibilities are even remotely similar to its creator’s will surely take comfort in this.

Ultimately, Ellison’s history serves him well, as he’s able to summon an impressive slew of memorable sequences set to an elaborate and often haunting original score. Featuring contributions from the likes of Aphex Twin, Thundercat, Akira Yamaoka, Ellison himself, and Busdriver (who steals both the intro and the tail-end of the film with a song and a poem, respectively), the soundscape here is rarely stagnant for long. Perhaps it’s a testament to Ellison’s unfailing ability to allow the colorful sounds to compel his visions that the most disturbing moments are largely the result of his sonic world-building; take for example a tit-filled nightmare trip wherein the subconscious implications are the most immediately frightening quality aside from the grotesque 3D animation, or a blissfully confrontational Buttress music video which comes totally out of left field in the best way.

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This may not ultimately be suitable for mass public consumption, and it’s true that a few of its stories could have been certainly benefitted from a more clear sense of closure, it nevertheless amounts to a unique cinematic experience; a multi-faceted body-horror collage that, by lacking any discernible pretense as to what its aspirations are, achieves a very specific sort of purity. Ellison is maybe the only one who could have channeled something so unabashedly soaked in its own oddity and achieved the level of humor and pathos that he does here. KUSO just is, and you’re either immediately immersed in its perverted portal or you’re not. “Do not fear the feces”, advises a dapper cockroach at one point; wise words, all things considered.

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