This short review appeared on The Upcoming website here as part of their coverage of the London Film Festival.
A film of love, life and death on the island of Amami, south of the Japanese mainland, Still the Water attempts to represent the traditions of a small island community as two children come to terms with death.
The film follows Kyoko (Jun Yoshinaga) and Kaito (Nijiro Murakami) as they both come face-to-face with death. Kyoko falls in love with the moody Kaito, who is significantly less mature than she is. Kaito’s parents have divorced and neither seems to spend much time with Kaito, who suffers in silence. Meanwhile, Kyoko is trying to come to terms with her dying mother. Then Kaito finds a corpse floating in the sea.
The film has a real human warmth to it, and there are many scenes that manage to convey some universal truths about life and death and our inability to fully grasp these big questions. The main problem with the film is that its success or failure may depend on the degree of one’s sympathy for films that juxtapose the permanence of nature with the human struggles playing out in its midst. In this respect, the film is much too long and somewhat conventional for its own good. A more experimental or vibrant film might have better represented these themes more successfully than a lot of sober looks into the middle distance followed by shots of wind blowing through foliage. Oftentimes it feels cold and intellectual when it should be emotional and the graphic goat slaughtering scenes seem to paradoxically suggest that the kind of natural grace the film represents is only open to humans. Similarly, the film’s triumphant ending, thanks to a judicious use of blur, seems to unintentionally suggest that an embrace of nature should only go so far.
The film ends with a typhoon, which both threatens to engulf the humans or bring some sort of clarity, but the film remains somewhat vague. The character’s emotional journeys are clearly mapped out (almost too precisely) but we are left with a feeling that we have not learnt anything we didn’t know before. One death scene is presented lyrically and rather movingly, but only because it totally ignores the pain and the discomfort of the act of dying. It is a warm film, but it feels only surface deep – a film betraying the influence of Malick, Herzog, Kurosawa and Mizoguchi but few ideas of its own.