If a director makes a good movie that only she understands, does it still count as a good movie? All through Still The Water, we are granted the privilege of peering into the lives of simple, yearning villagers via a film that is no doubt crafted out of the intimate imagination of its director, Naomi Kawase. It’s a breathtakingly shot film, charged with a dreamlike Japanese landscape. The only problem is, much of what these villagers do and say doesn’t correspond with what we see.
Still The Water is only the second student of Phenomenology I have come across. Phenomenology, as I have pointed out in my review of Andrei Tarkovsky’s Ivan’s Childhood, is a faction of cinematic studies that seeks to harness all five of our senses when it comes to absorbing a movie. We use our eyes to see and our ears to hear, but what if we can also feel the story? What if we can smell the food that’s being eaten, or taste the salt in the seawater? Still The Water challenges us with Phenomenology. Kawase has imbued her film with so many sights, sounds, textures, and aromas that her story transcends comprehension and survives on sheer tactile strength alone. This is a movie we experience with all of our body, not one we merely watch.
Here, I’ll give you an example. It comes in the opening few minutes, so there can be no spoilers of any kind. Waves upon waves crash onto the shore of a scenic island, somewhere off the southern coast of Japan. It’s a typhoon. We know this because the wind howls and the water accelerates with immense ferocity. Trees battle the onslaught to remain in the ground, which seems to tremble with fear. The waves are not only bombarding the coastline, they are bombarding our senses. We are witnessing them, sight, sound, anger. The impact of the photography is so shattering that for those brief few minutes, we are standing on the beach, braving the storm along with the trees.
And then it cuts to silence. The typhoon’s gone. The beach is dead. The waters have left seaweed and debris in the sands. We are snapped out of the moment just as rudely as when we were snapped in. And then the movie cuts to a distressing shot of a goat, hung upside down by the ankles, succumbing slowly, painfully, to a severed jugular. Kawase doesn’t hesitate to show us the open wound, blood pouring out as if from a carafe. It groans its last breath. The elderly man who administered the fatal slice pats the goat as a form of gratitude, and the scene’s over.
Next, a ritualistic dance in the moonlight. A gathering of villagers sing, chant, dance, act, smile and laugh. Something’s going on. We don’t know what it is, but the sounds of the singing and the music fill the air. All these scenes have little in common with each other narratively, except that they aim to excite our senses. We are invited to Still The Water not because it has a story to tell, but because it knows, confidently, how to tell its story.
But this is where I felt a little underwhelmed. Yes, Kawase is confident and she directs Still The Water with vivid, assured strokes, but her strokes are too heavy. The human story buried within is lost. We have Kaito (Nijiro Murakami) and Kyoko (Jun Yoshinaga), two teens struggling with maternal afflictions. They are also in love, or at least Kyoko’s in love with Kaito.
Kaito’s parents are divorced, and his mum might be having her cake and eating it too. Kyoko’s mum is dying, but she is a practicing shaman, which the movie informs us is kind of like a god. So maybe she can’t really die after all (do gods die?). Back and forth Kaito and Kyoko swing, sometimes with their mothers, sometimes with each other. All the while they question existential philosophies and the meaning of life, love and commitment. Their mentors speak in consoling platitudes, most of which make little sense to the plot’s pressing issues. There is so little focus in the narrative that even if we feel something for its characters, we are not sure if it’s because of them or because the movie is coaxing us to in very physical ways.
Derek Elley of Film Business Asia called Still The Water “empty” and “pretentious”. He might be on to something here. But we cannot doubt its visual brilliance, and the ease with which it appeals to our senses. If you see Still The Water, see it for all its visual cues; listen to the way its characters talk about what they do, and observe the way they do it. Every scene is rich with sights, smells, sounds, tastes and textures.
Best Moment | The ending scene, which liberates its characters and unifies them. It’s a little contrived, but it’s accomplished.
Worst Moment | The goats dying. Twice. Why show this to us? Kawase makes the mistake of isolating each death. We are not shown if the goats are later used for meat, or if their hide is made into leather, or even if their milk is saved. They are killed gruesomely, and then finish. It’s over.