Naomi Kawase’s “Still The Water” was greeted with something of a muted response when Thierry Fremaux announced it among the eighteen competing films for the Palme d’Or. Ardent arthouse fans will mostly recognize Kawase, and to those who are loyal followers of the Cannes Film Festival her inclusion in the main competition is like seeing a familiar face in a crowded street. She’s had practically every feature film premiere at Cannes, starting with 1997’s “Suzaku” which won the Camera d’Or, including 2007’s “The Mourning Forest” which won the Grand Jury Prize, and now with this year's "Still The Water" (she was also part of last year’s main competition jury). And this time around, her lyrical and personal style of cinema adds another treat to an already fantastic slate, and should make the competitive scuffle for the number one spot that more interesting.
The story is set on a Japanese island and follows Kaito (Nijiro Murakami), a boy living with his single hardworking mother, and Kyoko (Jun Yoshinaga), a girl living with her surfer-dad while her mom Isa (Miyuki Matsuda) is fighting a fatal illness in the hospital. When Kaito discovers a dead body floating in the sea, the fear and confusion overwhelms him and he runs home. Kyoko, who was nearby for their scheduled rendezvous, reacts to the mysterious corpse in less dramatic fashion, but when her mother returns home to spend her last days with her family, Kyoko has a hard time coming to terms with her mother’s fate. Especially because Isa is a shaman, and thus is more connected to the gods who should not be allowing death to come so soon. Adding to the kids’ disillusionment is their growing love for each other and their flourishing urges to express it.
It takes a while to sink in to this one, but once it does, you find yourself in a really good place. Kawase’s camera never swerves too far from her characters, especially during the intimate moments of family connection or traditional Japanese festivities, which evoke a closeness that’s slightly off-putting at first but eases into comfort with gradual pace. The way the film opens might have something to do with the length of time it takes us to get truly involved; after a few blistering shots of ominous-looking waves, image and sound cuts to black silence as if by a light switch, and a few seconds of darkness pass before we get an unflinching close-up of a goat being slaughtered. Where others directors would cut away from the incision and the blood, Kawase’s camera zooms ever so slightly closer. And while "slaughter" might be a harsh word for a scene even a vegetarian couldn’t deny is merciful, it’s still discomforting to watch. But, the discomfort has a purpose. It establishes the crucial relationship with the inevitability of death, its place in nature, and man’s acceptance of it.
It helps that Kawase’s cinematographer Yutaka Yamazaki has an expert eye for visualizing man’s place in nature, as the underwater scenes and pictorial landscapes of the island are captured with a benevolent eye. One shot in particular will most likely remain as the most affecting and provocative image to come out of Cannes (in this reviewer’s opinion) and that’s after being floored by the marvelous photography in fellow contenders “Mr. Turner” and “Winter Sleep.” "Still The Water" is at its enchanting best when depicting the mysteries of death and the conflicts of trying to come to terms with it. The noticeable comparison for Western reference is Terrence Malick, of course, as some of the scenes – especially in the final sequence – recall “The New World” but the final shot out-Malicks Malick himself.
The trouble is that the film takes its time getting to the breathtaking stuff, which might be the only thing standing in the way of Kawase and her first Palme d’Or. The story of the floating dead man, and what exactly happened to him, is swept away rather briskly and the (slightly suspect) revelation of who he really was comes a little too late to connect. The score in the first half of the film is a melodramatic piano, and supporting contrived dialogue of broken hearts and scary seas, only serves to slow our investment down. But once Kyoko’s mother comes back home, and the spiritual angle is tackled by Matsuda’s powerful performance, the film takes a magnificent turn upwards. Even the music changes from the soap-operatic piano to a much more effective wind instrument pieces. Suddenly, the children’s personalities take form and the performances by Murakami and Yushinaga take center stage and submerge into that comforting feeling. We suddenly find ourselves caring very much for Kaito’s disenchantment with his mother, the visit to his father in Tokyo and their conversation becomes thick with meaning on the importance of environment in relation to individual satisfaction, and Kyoko’s father and grandfather become the film’s anchors of wisdom. The speech Kyoko’s father gives at the end is like a mini tsunami of emotional power.
The grandiose themes, the symbolism of the sea and all the wonders that lie beneath, the fear of misunderstanding the laws of nature, and the relationship between men and women, all blend into a cathartic climax that reminds one of the film’s beating heart; an enthralling coming of age story. The contention for the Palme is heating up, with the most recently screened “Two Days, One Night” just proving to be another legitimate contender but don’t be surprised if Kawase ends up taking something home, be it Screenplay or Directing, since the Palme seems a little too out of reach. "Still The Water" is a spectacle for the senses, which, if there is any justice, will be remembered as one of the greater films of the competition. [B+]