Thursday, July 16, 2015

Japan Cuts ’15: The Voice of Water

L. Ron Hubbard would be impressed. The leaders of the God’s Water cult come from the advertising industry and they explicitly refer to the “religion industry.” They make no secret of their commercial ambitions, even when in the presence of cult members. Business is on the upswing thanks to their charismatic priestess, but her family issues will engulf the entire cult in screenwriter-director Masashi Yamamoto’s The Voice of Water (trailer here), which screens as a selection of this year’s Japan Cuts, the Festival of New Japanese Film in New York.

Lovely and serene-looking, the Zainichi Min-jung is a natural fronting God’s Water. You could say it is in her blood. She hails from a long line of shimbang, women who practice a regional form of shamanism on Jeju Island. Everyone knows she is faking it, even their core followers, but there is something reassuring about her presence. However, Min-jung starts to maybe-sort of believe in her hereditary powers at an inopportune time. Internal dissension is on the rise and her own lowlife father Mikio/Mickey might pull the entire group into his chaos. To avoid his Yakuza loan shark, Mikio has been crashing in the God’s Water headquarters. He has even won over some of the office staff, despite her protests.

Arguably, Voice is the greatest, under-heralded find at this year’s Japan Cuts. You will be hard-pressed to find a similarly matter-of-fact, cynically business-oriented perspective on cults and their followers in a year of film festivals. It is particularly damning when showing how the need to belong trumps all common sense, keeping members blindly devoted even when they know full well it is all just a racket. The specifics of the Korean-Japanese Zainichi experience and the Korean shamanic tradition further enrich the film, grounding it in a very distinctive cultural context.

As a result, Voice could well be the definitive cultist film of the decade, but it is also a Yakuza film. In fact, sensitive viewers should be warned, there is at least one tough to watch scene involving Mikio’s nemesis. Yet, it makes the uni-named Hyunri’s lead performance even braver. She is absolutely riveting and acutely human (in every messy way possible) as the inspiring Min-jung. As Mikio, Akio Kamataki is also achingly tragic, while Kei Oda is unsettlingly sinister as Takazawa, the gangster.

Yamamoto draws out the punishing third act just a tad too long, but his patience and attention to detail creating the God’s Water universe is completely fascinating to behold. It is very different from Sion Sono’s Love Exposure, but it is just as powerful in its own way. Very highly recommended, The Voice of Water screens tomorrow night (7/17) at the Japan Society, as part of the 2015 Japan Cuts.