Saturday, September 13, 2014

TIFF ’14: Still the Water

There is nothing like discovering a body to hasten the coming of age process. Frankly, sixteen year-old Kaito could maybe use the kick-start. His prospective girlfriend Kyoko has also offered encouragement, but he has been slow to fully respond in Naomi Kawase’s Still the Water (clip here), which screens during the 2014 Toronto International Film Festival.

On an island like Aami Oshima, typhoons are a fact of life. As a result, residents necessarily have a heightened awareness of the natural and spiritual worlds. This is particularly true of Kyoko’s mother Isa. As a shaman, she has always navigated between the divine and terrestrial planes. Unfortunately, she will soon crossover for good, as she slowly succumbs to a terminal illness.

Unlike, Kyoko, Kaito is not a native islander and he definitely does not share her affinity for the ocean. Having recently moved from Tokyo with his mother Misaki, following her divorce from his tattoo artist father, Kaito carried quite a bit of baggage with him. Yet, he slowly starts to form a connection with Kyoko, even though she is preparing herself for her mother’s imminent death.

Kawase is sort of a lover-her-or-hate-her filmmaker. If you require plotty narrative and zippy dialogue, than keep looking. However, if you are enraptured by grand natural vistas invested with sense of deeper mystical portent, this is the film for you. Like Kawase’s Mourning Forest (ironically a more demanding, yet more emotionally resonant work), Still looks lovely (although not quite as arresting as Forest). Cinematographer Yutaka Yamazaki gives it a shimmering, slightly nostalgic vibe not unlike the Kore-eda films he previously lensed, particularly Still Walking. Hashiken’s score also serves as an effective mood-setter, evoking western string ensemble chamber music, with a hint of traditional Japanese forms.

Despite Kawase’s loose approach to narrative, there is considerable inequity between the film’s two main forks, represented by Kyoko and Kaito. It is impossible not to be moved by Kyoko’s parents, savoring the family’s simple pleasures together while they can. As Kyoko, Jun Yoshinaga’s eyes seem to leap out of the screen and peer into your soul. Likewise, the rugged Tetta Sugimoto and ethereal Miyuki Matsuda are genuinely touching, conveying years of shared history in a word or a gesture.

In contrast, Kaito is supposed to be a bit of a pill—and Nijiro Murakami plays him accordingly. Considering the quiet and meditative tone of much of the film, his scenes of awkward melodrama stick out rather conspicuously.

At two hours almost on the dot, Still could have stood a bit of pruning, especially the inconsistent third act. Editor Tina Baz must have lost a lot of arguments to Kawase. It is an undisciplined film, but it is often beautiful. Those who appreciate “slow cinema” will find much to see and hear. Recommended circumspectly for Kawase’s admirers and filmgoers who prioritize atmosphere above all else, Still the Water screens again tomorrow (9/14) at this year’s TIFF.