In the first minutes of the new, entrancing film Yanagawa, Lidong (Zhang Luyi) tells a woman that he has been diagnosed with stage four cancer. Her response (“are you talking to me?”) is an early example of the film’s quiet, off-kilter sense of humor. Having given the news to a stranger, he does not tell his older brother Lichun (Xin Baiqing) when they meet for drinks at a Japanese bar in Beijing. Instead, their very finely written dialogue consists mostly of gentle teasing. Lichun is sociable and conventional; Lidong is introverted, a bit “strange” according to his brother and given to unexplained behavior, like when, in high school, he permanently stopped speaking Beijing dialect overnight. A kind of tact regulates their conversation, and many things need not be said directly. But small anomalies begin to appear, and a ghostly quality hangs over the scene. Lidong claims to hear the nearby Bell Tower ring — but the bell doesn’t ring any more, does it? And is it morning or night?
What follows is the brothers’ trip to Yanagawa, Japan, the “Venice of Japan” but more of a ghost town, according to the bartender. They go there to reconnect, but also for reasons that concern Lichun’s old girlfriend Chuan (Ni Ni), who vanished from Beijing twenty years before. Some of its characters’ reasons will become clear to the viewer, but the film never drags all of its secrets into the light of day. Without arbitrary coyness but with a delicacy characteristic of director Zhang Lu’s films, it leaves some secrets intact, just as the characters understand each other best when they communicate indirectly. Watching them, I thought of the psychoanalyst Anne Dufourmantelle, who wrote about an ethics of secrets that would consist above all in allowing them to be: “This secret might be an atmosphere, a color, a place, a manner of being. […] Not kept by them, this secret—quite to the contrary—keeps them, protects them. It’s a tonality, a particular music, a signature.” The fascinating way the camera moves as it follows characters’ meandering paths through Yanagawa’s streets and canals suggests both interest and respectful distance.
The film suggests a different literary reference: Chuan’s new admirer Hiroki reads a novel by Kazuo Ishiguro, whom he met when living in London. That he reads the English novel in Japanese is characteristic of the translational nature of many of Zhang Lu’s movies. This may have something to do with Zhang’s experience as a third-generation ethnic Korean in China; in any case, his films often engage with questions of language and nationality. A novelist and former professor of literature, he has made films in China, Japan, Mongolia, and Korea. In Yanagawa, changing from one language to another seems more freeing than fraught, especially for Chuan, who, after leaving Beijing for London, has established herself as a singer of English and Chinese songs in Japan.
At the limit of this freedom, characters might even disappear, like a teenaged girl Chuan meets through a set of coincidences. Is this the peril of an uprooted life? Or a radical kind of freedom, which the women in this film seem particularly to exercise? The film is not so assertive as to answer, but its tone and manner of observing suggest how to approach the question. And when attachments are at stake, we might bear in mind the idea, exemplified by Lidong, that “the funniest joke is when you forget the joke.”
Shot on Amami Ōshima, Still the Water is a coming-of-age film about a teenage couple finding their place in a traditional island community. Kyōko (Yoshinaga Jun, the stage name of Abe Junko) was raised on the island by an almost ideally preternaturally nurturing family. She seems most at home when she’s swimming around the reef. Her mother (Matuda Miyuki) is a shaman who returns home from the hospital with a terminal illness, and Kyōko’s coming of age seems to involve learning from the ways the community treats death. In contrast, Kaito is a city boy whose mother brought him to the island after divorce, and he has what a city-dweller like me may think is a healthy fear of the ocean. He has a troubled relation to his mother, which stands in the way of his relationship with Kyōko; but more broadly, the film treats their integration into the community as a condition for picturing a possible future together.
An event of uncertain significance hangs over the story: the early discovery of a naked man drowned in the ocean, his body bearing yakuza-like tattoos. This is a bit of screenwriting artifice that aims to make meaning, but it doesn’t quite cohere with the story. Director Kawase Naomi has made some notable films, like Suzaku (1997), The Mourning Forest (2007), Sweet Bean (2015), and True Mothers (2020). Others have struck me as less rich and more inclined to sentimentality, and especially to nostalgia for a community living in concert with nature. Still the Water shares this nostalgia, but the performances by its young actors make it compelling. Nor does it shrink from harder edges – notably in the opening scene of a goat’s slaughter.
But for me, the film’s pleasures reside in its moments and sensations: Kyoko and her family laying on an open porch under a banyan tree, the family and villagers gathered around the mother’s deathbed, the changing surface of the ocean, or the shift in mood signaling autumn’s approach. These moments’ quiet grace may not lead to a greater emotional investment in the story. But the director seems more interested in the future, and the film ends in a prophetic, ambiguous mode.
Yanagawa available to stream at Film Movement Plus, www.filmmovementplus.com. Still the Water is available via VOD and leading digital platforms such as iTunes and Amazon.