Enigmatic, exotic, erotic: three adjectives commonly bandied about in discussion about Naomi Kawase‘s films. Not for her latest outing, though. Sure, Still the Water has its moments of mystery (a corpse floating in the sea at night), portrayals of traditional rituals (from dancing to the throat-slitting of goats) and sex, but all is rendered less beguiling for the simplistic (and sometimes even artless) ways they are rendered onscreen. Combined with its sprawling narrative and insubstantial characters, the movies seems some distance from the creative heights Kawase attained with tightly regimented yet deeply engaging films like Suzaku (1997), Shara (2003) and The Mourning Forest (2007).
It’s not as if Still the Water doesn’t have its merits: True to form, Kawase manages to capture the settings of the film — it was shot in Amami Oshima, a subtropical island off the south of mainland Japan, in utmost beauty — there are harrowing shots of tall waves hitting the shore, aerial views of the island’s emerald heartlands, a splendid tracking shot of mangroves on the coast.
It’s the people who pose problems. While retaining some of Kawase’s favorite themes — the meaning of life and death, the unseen umbilical cords between mother and child and the power of nature over human civilization — Still the Water elects to spell all this out through its chunky dialogue, in an ironic reverse of the mumbling, obscure symbolism which sunk the director’s previous film, Hanezu. Characters wonder aloud “why people have to be born and then die”; a divorced father muses about “fate” shaping his marriage and separation from his wife; a village elder chuckles and says how “those kids still don’t know what lies in the sea.”
But there are no answers to these questions — and the film would have done better without its characters asking them, leaving all these queries to be addressed in some more substantial characterization and narrative building. Still, the lush rural imagery and cryptic emotions will probably captivate Kawase’s international fan base. The film’s appearance as a Palme d’Or contender at Cannes — Kawase’s third nomination in seven years — will help propel it to a long run on the festival circuit, but commercial releases beyond home waters will be few. (Co-produced by Arte and repped by the powerful art house icon MK2, a French release has already been set for Sept. 17.)
It’s perhaps interesting how Still the Water began as if Kawase had taken a page out of fellow slow-cinema auteur Nuri Bilge Ceylan‘s genre-reinvention playbook, that is the hit-and-run-and-corruption drama Three Monkeys. After a brief prologue of two very violent scenes — of a typhoon hitting the island and the bloody slaughtering of a goat — the film proper begins when teenager Kaito (Nijiri Murakami) discovers the body of a naked, heavily tattooed man by the sea; the next day, villagers gather and chatter, speculating about the reasons for the man’s death and worrying how this might alter the state of an island “with not that many crimes.”
But implications of noir dissipate as the cadaver — which will be a connection to the boy’s emotional impasse, but more of that later — isn’t mentioned again in the next half-hour. Straight after leaving the gathering crowd by the sea, Kaito was chastised by his paramour, Kyoko (Jun Yoshinaga), for running away from the shore the previous night, as they were supposed to have a rendezvous there.
And then some expositions of the two teenagers, kindred and confused spirits lacking parental support — Kaito’s father has left for Tokyo and his mother is always at work at the seaside inn; Kyoko’s shaman mother (Miyuki Matsuda) is dying in hospital, and his bar-operator father (Fujio Tokita) is deft in philosophical talk and low on moral support. And Kyoko is the headstrong one in the equation: She defies a school ban on swimming on the beach by diving in fully clothed, and speaks frankly about her carnal desires to/for Kaito, something the boy rebuffs awkwardly. (When the girl says “I love you” to him, his response is “thanks.”)
As the film progresses, the pair’s relationship will ebb and flow as they struggle to articulate and acknowledge emotions; from one of Kaito’s dream, it’s clear his emotional blockage is due to some serious mommy issues, his angst about his parents’ divorce and his mother’s post-separation love-life.
But Kawase nearly always places love — mostly suppressed — as merely a splinter in a larger scheme of things. So there is the reflection on mortality, as the girl struggles to comprehend the pending demise of her mother; in turn, the frail shaman attempts to pass down some sage wisdom about the transcendent nature of human existence in the eyes of deities.
And of course there’s nature: Kawase’s eye for beauty remains impeccable, as she and DP Yutaka Yamazaki vividly evoke Asami Oshima’s landscapes. But it’s also in looking for the “natural” that Still the Water comes up short. While the director prides herself for having a mix of pro and amateur actors improvising scenes, many awkward moments emerge as the characters seemingly are just instructed to let their conversations and interactions flow: the result is missed beats, protracted silences and characters staring at each other or into space for too long.
Bar the Bangkok-set misstep Nanayomachi from 2008, Still the Water is the director’s first feature-film foray outside her hometown of Nara; this project was developed out of Kawase’s discovery of her maternal grandmother’s roots on the island. While she could conjure the splendor and some of the cultural legacy of the island onscreen, the more specific traits of the place are not sufficiently mined, such as the Amami archipelago’s uniqueness from mainland Japan in terms of geography and history (the island was ruled by a U.S.-installed provisional government from 1947 to 1953; a banner celebrating the 60th anniversary of the “restoration” of Japanese sovereignty could be seen in a shot at the airport in the film).
These are specific manifestations of dislocation and alienation ripe for development, or to be deployed as symbolism for the separation and union of the peoples and couples in the film, something Kawase did well with her first film, Suzaku (in which a village family disintegrates because of memories of rural underdevelopment). Here, at the end of Still the Water, an old man’s voice says: “These kids don’t know what lies in the sea.” And, indeed, there are a lot of unknowns in the film.
Venue: Cannes Film Festival (Official Competition); Press screening, May 20, 2014
Production Companies: Commes des Cinema, Wowow, Arte France Cinema, Luis Miñarro, Asmik Ace, Kumie, Pony Canyon
Cast: Jun Yoshinaga, Nijiro Murakami, Tetta Sugimoto, Miyuki Matsuda, Makiko Watanabe, Fujio Tokita
Director: Naomi Kawase
Screenwriter: Naomi Kawase
Producers: Masa Sawada, Takehiko Aoki, Naomi Kawase with Olivier Pere, Remi Burah, Luis Minarro, Masaki Miyata, Yuko Naito, Nasahiko Mizuguchi, Nobuya Wazaki, Anne Pernod
Executive Producer: Reiji Yamamoto
Director of photography: Yutaka Yamazaki
Production designer: Kenji Inoue
Editor: Tina Baz
No rating; 118 minutes