Woman of Water Review
Ryo (played by Japanese music celebrity UA) has always had an affinity with water. Ever since she was young, important events in her life have been accompanied by rain. She runs a bath-house with her fiancé, until one day, during a rain-storm, he is killed in a car crash. Ryo becomes solitary and isolated, and the bath-house is closed. One day, however, she returns home to find a strange man, Yusaku (Tadanobu Asano - previously seen in Ichi the Killer), in her house. A pyromaniac by nature, his love of fire proves to be very useful to Ryo as he enlists him to keep the bath-house's furnace running. The pair soon enter into a love relationship, and the bath-house flourishes once more. However, Yusaku has a dark past, which threatens to resurface and destroy everything.
Inquisitive fellow that I am, I occasionally drop by at screenwriting forums around the web to learn what makes a good film work. I'm no expert, but I have to say that Woman of Water would probably be a prime candidate for a prototype of what not to do when creating a plot. The film takes its time in every aspect: scenes plod by at a leisurely place, playing them out as if time was of no importance. Often, scenes begin too early and end too late, as opposed to following the commonly advised rule of only showing what is necessary for the story. Part of that is probably due to the fact that there really isn't much of a story here. It feels like a snapshot of a moment in time rather than a premise that actually progresses towards any point. Ryo is a young woman whose fiancé has died. She runs a bath-house. She invites a mysterious young man to move in with her. They run the bath-house together and have sex. That's it. One could label this as a prime example of style over substance, although I'm not sure I would agree. First of all, as Dario Argento, David Lynch and countless others have admirably demonstrated, style is not necessarily the yin to substance's yang. Style can be a form of substance if handled by the right storyteller. Woman of Water's problem is that it simply doesn't have anything to say, or if it does have something to say it is unable to adequately express itself.
To be fair, there is something of a decent metaphor underlying the pretty imagery if you look for it. It's not groundbreaking, but it works well enough. The essential idea is that Ryo, the woman, represents water and Yusaku, the man, represents fire. Separate, these two forces can be very destructive, but together, they can keep each other under control and can in fact be useful to society. One very nice touch is that, by the end of the film, the previously blue (i.e. water) painting of Mount Fuji that adorns Ryo's bath-house now has a red sun and clouds (i.e. fire), suggesting that perhaps the experience has changed Ryo, even if writer/director Hidenori Sugimori doesn't see fit to even hint at what this change might be. This really sums up the overall problem of the film: a nice image, and one that might have something behind it, but what that might be, if it is present at all, is never exposed.
A popular musician in Japan, lead actor UA (I have no idea what her real name is) does a decent job of portraying Ryo. The script doesn't really give her much to work with, and as a result her performance is quite understated and more often than not ambiguous. She's recently bereaved, yes, but she never really gives us any clue as to whether she is upset or not. Only on a few occasions does she display any real emotion, and as such, it's not so much her acting as her appearance that gives her character any believability. It's difficult to explain, but she has a very grounded and deep look. There is something about her face which suggests that, despite her external ambivalence, there is something more substantial going on within her. Hats off to her, however, for taking on a role requiring her to be naked on a number of occasions. Look at the nude and sex scenes she does, and then try to imagine Britney Spears, Mandy Moore or any other Western pop star cum actor doing them.
Yusaku, meanwhile, is an enigma. He appears without a past, and initially without a name, and I spent most of the film wanting to know more about him. When it eventually emerged that he was guilty of numerous counts of arson, the film treated this as a revelation, but I wasn't at all surprised. His relationship with Ryo is confusing (particularly given the fact that, after their first encounter, he more or less tries to rape her), at times tender, but on other occasions unnaturally frosty. Tadanobu Asano's portrayal of the character is strong enough, although like UA you get the feeling he has little to work with and as a result is unable to make any assertions as to his motivations.
One thing that is definite, however, is that the cinematography is exquisite. Director of photography Hiroshi Machida paints the screen with deep, cold blues and lots of shadow. The framing is superb, and the slow pace of the film allows the camera to linger on the shots in a way that allows the viewer to fully appreciate them. The script may be suspect, but visually this is a truly beautiful film. Likewise, the use of sound is superb and often inspired. Composer Yoko Kanno opts for a minimalist but powerful score, making frequent use of piano solos. The occasional uses of silence are also well-placed and surprisingly effective: having the background noise disappear for a brief moment, only to come thundering back on, gives it a certain unpredictability.
To sum up, Woman of Water is pretty but irritatingly slow. Nothing happens in a great hurry, and the end result is one of ambivalence rather than anything else. As such, it certainly isn't essential viewing, although it does make for nice eye candy.
Note: through seamless branchinng, this DVD features both the theatrical cut and the director's cut, which is approximately 9 minutes longer and includes a handful of additional scenes, including an intriguing, dreamlike sequence in which Ryo goes to the top of Mount Fuji and has a conversation with a strange man. The director's cut is accessed from the Bonus Features menu (it's the topmost option), but disappointly has no subtitles - a true shame, because it would otherwise have been my preferred viewing option.
One additional note: there are a couple of scenes featuring various naked bathers that have been quite clumsily censored, to the extent that someone simply slapped a blurring effect over their genitalia. Quite apart from being very distracting, this tomfoolery is inconsistently applied, with a few people escaping the humiliation of having their reproductive organs replaced by giant floating blobs. Japan may be suitably liberal when it comes to violence and actual sexual acts, but the censors' attitude towards genitalia is just baffling. Only in a thoroughly hypocritical society could communal nudity in a bath-house be completely acceptable, only to be censored when depicted on film.
The film is presented anamorphically in an aspect ratio of 1.78:1. The original theatrical ratio was probably 1.85:1.
This is a very nice-looking transfer, doing Hiroshi Machida's sumptuous photography full justice, and perfectly capturing the cold blues and preserving the delicate framing. There are no visible compression artefacts, which is something of a miracle given the amount of water in this film and the MPEG2 format's notoriety of finding it a difficult subject to encode successfully. At times, there is a very slight softness to the image, but it is not unpleasant. Otherwise the transfer has plenty of detail and very little edge enhancement. My only real criticism of this transfer is that the black level occasionally seems to be a bit lacking, with elements of the screen in darkness looking a little grey. Still, in the grand scheme of things this is a minor criticism. The whole thing looks superb.
A solid Dolby Digital 2.0 track is provided. Some people have suggested it to be mono, but there is definitely cross-channel action on a number of occasions. The sound stage feels remarkably wide for a stereo mix, and the dialogue sounds crisp, at least to my Japanese-illiterate ears. The film makes occasional impressive use of sound effects, especially rain and running water, and it all sounds very good indeed. There are no synchronization problems or drop-outs of any kind. Those who demand surround sound action on every single title, be it the latest Hollywood blockbuster or the most obscure art-house film, will no doubt decry the lack of a 5.1 track, but there is absolutely nothing wrong with this mix, given the subject matter of the film in question.
Clear English subtitles are provided for the theatrical cut. Unfortunately, as previously mentioned, the director's cut has no subtitles.
When you insert the disc, the theatrical cut of the film automatically plays after the company logos rather than going straight to the menu. The menu itself is a nice simple affair: a static background with no animation or music. The text is in Japanese, but there aren't too many options, so it shouldn't take too long to figure out what each different button does.
In descending order, the selections are as follows: Play Theatrical Cut, Scene Selection, Bonus Material, and Cast and Crew Bios. The very bottom option, marked On/Off, is used to enable and disable English subtitles.
The extras menu gives the following options in descending order: Director's Cut, On-set Footage and Interview, Making-of Documentary, Music Video, Trailer, and TV Spot.
The packaging is extremely nicely designed: one of the old-style "crystal" cases inside a cardboard slip. The printing quality is of a very high standard, and the layout is simplistic but effective.
Although it may not sound like very much on paper, the bonus material actually has a rather long total running time, and proves to be of reasonable interest.
On-set footage and interview - Almost an hour's worth of behind the scenes footage is included here, going through the process of shooting virtually every key scene in the film. The footage is interspersed with interviews with the director, and various concept drawings. Although I didn't understand a word of what was being said (okay, thanks to Kill Bill I know "arigato" and "konichiwa", but that's it), I personally found this to be a very enjoyable and interesting feature.
Making-of documentary - This more traditional 30-minute documentary covers most aspects of the making of the film, but again concentrates on the actual shooting process. More footage from the finished film itself is shown this time round. The documentary ends with some material on the various film festivals at which the finished piece was shown, and the various awards it won, as well as some footage of various members of the cast and crew attending the premiere.
Music video - Slightly over 3 minutes in running time, this is a music video version of the UA-performed song which plays over the closing credits. All the footage here is taken from the film itself.
A 2-minute Trailer and 15-second TV spot are also included, as well as various cast and crew biographies (again, of course, in Japanese).
Woman of Water's DVD presentation is top-drawer in terms of video and audio quality, and it is backed up by a reasonable set of extras, making this release tempting for those with an interest in the film, which is itself not particularly substantial, although some people may find it intriguing purely out of curiosity value, or an appreciation of its beautiful visuals.