This was the film I most wanted to see in Glasgow, simply because writer-director Naomi Kawase is one of the most frequent Cannes prize contenders never to have had a film released in the UK. No doubt some of her earlier films have been at festivals here, but if so I’ve missed them. Female Japanese auteurs are not easy to find so I’ve been on the lookout for a Kawase film for some time. Inevitably, the fact that this film is a French co-production will help its sales. France and other Francophone territories in Europe have been her only outlets so far but the catalogue suggests that Still the Water will be released by Soda Pictures in the UK.
Without any previous experience of the director’s films I’m struggling to find a way in to discuss the film and to respond to some of the reviews from Cannes where the film was in competition for the Palme d’Or (Kawase has previously won the Camera d’Or and the Jury Prize and in 2013 she was on the main jury panel). What, for instance, to make of Derek Elley’s Film Business Asia Review which is headed “More empty, pretentious ramblings from self-styled auteur Kawase Naomi” and scored as 2/10? By contrast, Indiewire thought the film had a chance of winning the Palme d’Or. I’ll try to work somewhere between these two.
Still the Water is an intriguing title (and as Elley points out, the Japanese title means something quite different which doesn’t match the plot either). The story is set on the island of Amami Ōshima, part of the archipelago that stretches between Kyushu, the southernmost of the four main Japanese islands, and Okinawa. Apparently Kawase, who grew up in the Nara region of Honshu, has discovered that her ancestors came from the Amami Islands. Apart from the beauty of the islands, two other elements of local Amami culture are significant. One is the presence of female Shinto priests or noro and the other is the importance of local folk/community song traditions. The waters are often not still because the region is subject to typhoons.
The narrative begins with the body of a tattooed man being found in the sea and a subsequent ban on sea bathing – ignored by Kyoko, the strong and very beautiful 16 year-old daughter of a family that owns a beach restaurant. The body had been found by Kyoko’s classmate Kaito and the young couple are in a relationship that hasn’t yet fully formed. While her father cooks the food and runs the restaurant, her mother Isa is seriously ill in hospital and will eventually come home to die. Isa is presumably a noro – though the subtitles call her a shaman. Kaito lives with his mother, a waitress in a local restaurant. She is separated from the boy’s father, a tattooist in Tokyo who Kaito visits one weekend. His mother is often out with new partners and this has an impact on Kaito. The narrative includes the mystery of the body in the sea as well as the romance between Kyoko and Kaito, but there isn’t really much plot. The main question seems to be how the different issues facing the couple’s parents will have an impact on their children. More important, perhaps, is the discourse about nature and spirituality, ecology and human psychology. One obvious point is about the juxtaposition of death – scenes of a goat being slaughtered by the old fisherman are presented in close-up detail and witnessed by Kyoto – and the blossoming of romance and sexual joy.
Those who don’t like the film seem to be most offended by the lack of narrative drive and what they see as Kawase’s pretentiousness. This view ignores the sheer beauty of the film and the sensitivity of the performances. The other stumbling block may be the ‘otherness’ of Japanese culture. It often seems to me that the importance of the sea in Japan’s ‘island culture’ isn’t properly recognised in the West – nor is the Shintoist belief in the spirits which inhabit specific locations. Perhaps the title refers to the oncoming typhoon and the possibility that the love between Kyoko (who is expected to inherit her mother’s powers?) and Kaito will ensure that ‘still water’ will be restored. Personally, I picked up echoes of Miyazaki’s Ponyo on the Cliff By the Sea (2008) – simply in terms of the spirits of the sea, the ecological questions and the triumphant young female figure. The look of the film, however, comes from a different kind of ‘magic image’ in the work of veteran cinematographer Yamazaki Yutaka, best known in recent years for his work with Kore-eda Hirokazu on his films about families and children. Still the Water benefits from his photography of the sea and landscapes as well as the characters. Equally important is the music, including the traditional songs sung in Isa’s last few hours on the beach. I like films in which the characters sing.
Now I’ve thought it through, I’m not sure that the film is a masterpiece but I certainly enjoyed it and I look forward to seeing it again. I’m also going to have to add this film to my list of movies with great cycling scenes. Here is the French trailer with English subs giving a good idea of the emotional intensity of the film.
Life in a Fishbowl is the kind of film this blog seeks to promote. It has been a major hit in its own territory and won in virtually every category of Iceland’s national film awards. Internationally it has been praised as well – but it has also been dismissed as formulaic and ‘routine’. The Hollywood Reporter review is a case in point. It compares the film unfavourably to two respected Hollywood films and never discusses it as an Icelandic film. This is the kind of thing that really pisses me off. Let me explain.
Life in a ‘fishbowl’ is in some ways an excellent metaphor for what it must be like to live in a nation of 350,000 people which has nevertheless produced international performers in a number of disciplines. It’s perhaps easier to be a big fish in a small pond, but it’s quite difficult to be ‘unknown’. The film has been described as a multi-strand narrative and an ‘ensemble piece’. I’m not sure it is either of these, but I did keep thinking about those Nordic Noir novels and long-form TV serials. The film runs to 130 mins but I could happily have watched it over four or five single one hour episodes. I’ve learned from Icelandic crime novels and a handful of films that there is plenty of darkness in Icelandic stories – but also possibilities of hope.
There are three central characters in Life in a Fishbowl with personal narratives which will eventually overlap. Eik (Hera Hilmar) is an attractive young woman who was a teenage single mother and now has an 8 year-old daughter at 24. She works in a nursery school and supplements her income by working occasional nights as a call girl for local businessmen – trying to reduce her overdraft. Sölvi (Thor Kristjansson) is a handsome young footballer who has had to give up the game because of injury and has been taken on as a banking executive, adding some glamour to the management team. Finally, Móri (Þorsteinn Bachmann) is a poet and novelist who has become a sad alcoholic – but one still capable of producing an important autobiographical novel. These three are indeed familiar characters, but in context they represent much more. While Eik is perhaps the familiar figure of the damaged young woman n Nordic Noir, the other two characters are Icelandic heroes – the artist/novelist and footballer who might be feted in Northern Europe capitals as well as at home, especially in the years immediately before the financial crash of 2008 devastates Iceland. So, we have Iceland on the edge of the precipice with two potential national heroes and stories that delve into a dark past. I won’t give away what happens except to say that all three characters have a link to small daughters. The direct link between the three is that Sölvi has a daughter at the school where Eik works and that he is charged with trying to buy Móri’s house as part of his bank’s redevelopment plans. Móri’s house is near to the school and he likes to watch the young girls playing in the school grounds. That sounds provocative but don’t jump to conclusions. I think this manipulation of what seems like three typical characters in familiar narratives is actually well-worked. The performances are all very good, the ‘Scope cinematography works as does the music. It’s a Nordic melodrama and I had tears in my eyes at the end. If you are a jaded soul who sees everything through Hollywood lenses you might not get too much from the film but for the rest of us, it works like a treat. This second feature by writer-director Baldvin Zophoníasson is one of the films competing for the audience award at Glasgow. It stands a good chance.
The second Chinese film I saw in Glasgow offered both similarities of theme and great contrast in aesthetics. Dearest directed by the Hong Kong producer-director Peter Chan is more commercial and possibly more exploitative for some than Wang Xiaoshuai’s Red Amnesia – but it is also a much more popular film at the box office taking $54 million in Summer 2014. Peter Chan has a strong track record in various genres and I was very impressed by his 1990s melodrama Comrades, Almost a Love Story (HK 1996). Recently he made the timely mainland film about the new private schools in China, American Dreams in China (China-HK 2013).
This new mainland film is set in Southern China with Mandarin as the main language, but also some local dialects (the different status of the two languages is an element in the dialogue). The story is adapted from a news story in 2011 in the city of Shenzhen close to the border with Hong Kong. The social issue here is the criminal activity of child abduction – and the subsequent legal wrangling over the future of abducted children, which I take to be a partial outcome of the ‘one child’ policy which existed for several years in China. Tian Wenjun is divorced from Xiaojuan who has remarried. On the day that she brings their son Peng-Peng back to Wenjun’s computer parlour, the 3 year-old wanders off and disappears. Both parents feel guilty and they join a group of parents whose children have been abducted. Wenjun tirelessly searches for his son. One day all his advertising and offers of rewards finally pays off. Without wanting to spoil the narrative, I’d just like to report that the narrative then takes a sharp turn to focus on the seemingly unwitting ‘mother’ of the abducted boy. She is played by one of the leading stars of Chinese Cinema Zhao Wei (‘Vicky Zhao’) and the emotional levels are raised when she begins to seek legal help to keep her other child, also an abductee, who she will maintain was abandoned. This character is in some ways the traditional ‘suffering woman’ of the East Asian melodrama.
Dearest is a powerful emotional film and there are moments when it seems similar to the family melodrama scenes in Kore-eda Hirokazu’s Like Father, Like Son (Japan 2013) – especially in the family court scenes. However, while Kore-eda’s film negotiates the melodrama with some delicacy, Chan ramps up the emotion. Regular readers will know that we are not against full-blown melodrama and I found Dearest to be engaging throughout, offering just the kind of narrative I like. However, this kind of East Asian popular drama is a hard sell in the West and it is noticeable that whereas Red Amnesia has a UK distributor, Dearest has so far not been picked up for the UK. I think it’s our loss if we don’t get to see both films and are able to compare them. Having said that I worry about how Dearest would be received.
This was the first film I saw in Glasgow and a great way to start my festival viewing – with an intelligent and taut Italian crime film. Anime nere focuses on the ‘ndrangheta, the criminal families of Calabria in the deep south of Italy. The film begins on the waterfront in Amsterdam (which is not identified) where Luigi, one of three Carbone brothers is negotiating a major drugs deal with a Spanish group. Back on a mountain top near the Calabrian village of Africo, Luigi’s nephew Leo is fed up with his father Luciano who has opted out of crime to concentrate on the farm and his goats. Leo decides to head off on the long train journey north to Milan where he meets up with Luigi and the third brother, Rocco, the ‘accountant’ in the criminal business.
The ‘inciting incident’ in the narrative turns out to be the hot-headed Leo’s piece of minor vandalism carried out in his home village. It soon becomes clear that the Carbone’s rivals have just been looking for an excuse and a full-blown turf war is about to break out.
But it doesn’t – or at least not in the way that might be expected. This is more gangster as art film than gangster as The Godfather. Francesco Munzi’s film, based on a novel by Gioacchino Criaco is quite slow and it is deadly serious. Anyone who is a fan of the Italian TV crime series Inspector Montalbano will find this film both familiar but also disturbing. The connection is first via the actor who plays Rocco – Peppino Mazzotta – and who also plays Fazio, the Inspector’s ‘go to’ Lieutenant. But it’s also in the depiction of the desolate farms and abandoned villages of Sicily and Calabria. In the TV series it is played with some humour, but not here. There are several subtexts about the rural South and the sophisticated North and about the power of family ties and codes of honour – which of course are increasingly out of place in the global crime business.
The film doesn’t end as you might expect and throughout the violence is minimal with the worst bits off screen. But the tension is great throughout and you always expect something to happen. Vertigo are listed as UK distributors so I hope this gets into cinemas. Highly recommended if you are a fan of the European crime film – but give it a miss if you just like gunfights and sharp suits.