Tuesday, April 26, 2011

mondocurry Asian cinema corner report from the Tribeca Film Festival 2

Part 2

Underwater Love (Onna No Kappa)

Underwater Love is a logic-defying, eccentric vision that was somehow, through the work of unknown forces in the galaxy, brought to fruition. It proves that once in a while, given the right combination of unlikely and seemingly disparate parts, a whole is produced that on some level works, even brings a little magic into the audience’s world. It presents a twist on the classic “boy likes girl but girl doesn’t realize she belongs with boy because girl is involved with other boy who is kind of a jerk story.” Except here, the boy is a deceased high school student reincarnated into a Japanese mythical Kappa creature, and getting the girl to realize she doesn’t belong with the jerk is only part of the problem; he also has to keep her away from the persistent advances of an irksome shinigami (god of death). This is a movie that raises more questions than answers, so I think it would do well to pose a few rather than give an account of what happens. And in keeping with the holiday season, it seems fitting to limit the questions to four. Unlike in your Haggadah, however, you’re not likely to find any authoritative answers, or in some cases any at all.

1. Why all the sex in this otherwise innocent story of true love?

This is a ‘Pinku’ movie, part of Japan’s soft porn-ish film industry, which is taken more seriously by its participants, which over the years has included many an established director, than in the US. So sex was likely the first essential ingredient. This, also, is what director Imaoka Shinji does. A look at his imdb page shows a long list of tawdry stuff. Much of it sounds rather dark, for instance Bottled Vulva: Bank-Teller Noriko, which may in fact be about exactly what it sounds like. In comparison, Underwater Love is light-hearted positive stuff.

Still, with all the other possible less head scratching directions one could go with an erotic movie, why do a fantasy about a Kappa? Perhaps it was a bid to not be left out of the Interspecies Romance genre that has swept the US of late. In the West, young ladies swoon for graceful vampires and chiseled werewolves. From oft topsy-turvy Japan, though, we get an awkward creature with a body like a turtle, a beak for a mouth, and a bald spot in constant need of irrigation. It acts rather goofily and loves to snack on cucumbers. The ladies are still enamored. If it offers a clue where the film maker’s priorities lie, the most meticulously rendered part of the Kappa’s body is indeed its penetrating member.

2. Why is the shinigami an unsavory looking guy wearing a rainbow colored gown?

That sure doesn’t look like Ryuk from Death Note. This film was shot on a very low budget. In fact, according to the German producer who spoke during the Q & A after the film, all scenes were shot in only 5 days with only a single take for each one. I would venture to guess that with no way to make a convincingly menacing god of death, they decided to not even try. Another fact learned from the Q & A is that the actor playing the shinigami was the only one who has worked with director Imaoka on several previous productions. Perhaps other roles he has played make him a good fit for a god of death. The lack of a costume also goes along with a loose and free spirited feel of the production on the whole.

3. Why do the songs often sound like they belongs in a science fiction movie and the visuals look like they are from an art house film?

There are some interesting names associated with the project. The soundtrack was produced by certified indie French pop enthusiasts Stereo Total. They created a mesmerizing soundtrack of 8-bit bloops and bleeps and occasional sweeping synthesizer tones. Another bit of insight from the Q & A was that the soundtrack was created before shooting of the movie began, based on a script and outline the group was given two years before filming began. I wonder if the music would’ve turned out differently had the group seen the visuals before working on the soundtrack.

Famous autere cinematographer Christopher Doyle, who has worked on many an Asian film production, was brought in as director of photography. This could account for some intriguing uses of light and dizzying sequences of rain deflecting off of lilly pads, especially near the end of the movie.

4. Why are the dance routines so terrible?

There is a clear lack of any form of choreography, probably owing again to lack of budget. The movements appear to have been created by the actors and actresses themselves, all jerky head movements and jumping from one side to another. As strange as it is, the unpolished routines fit comfortably with the rest of the movie. And then there are the lyrics to the songs, which contain some hilarious non-sequiters that I couldn’t begin to imagine an explanation for.

A question that was asked of Imaoka after the film was about the Kappa’s tendency to hop in place dandily with its hands on its hips. He explained that this was not related to Kappa folklore; it was an idea that sprung from his own imagination. The charming lead actress Sawa Masaki gave some insight into the Kappa’s prominence in Japan, describing an honorary license for catching and releasing the mischievious creatures that people can obtain in some regions.
With turns that are at times endearing, raunchy, and downright strange, that would seem, on paper, to scarcely fit together, this little film will certainly go down as one of the more peculiar entries in Asian cinema.

If your curiosity’s been piqued, you can still get tickets for screenings of Underwater Love at Tribeca later on this week.

photo credits to Mr. C at Planet Chocko Zine, another source for offbeat cinema reviews

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