Fantasia 2011: ‘Underwater Love’ is a musical with heart, and other organs

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Underwater Love

Written by Tom Mes, Shinji Imaoka and Fumio Moriya

Directed by Shinji Imaoka

Japan/Germany, 2011

Whatever your tastes, there’s a very good chance that Shinji Imaoka’s Underwater Love is unlike anything you’ve seen before. A self-described “pink musical” – meaning it features sequences of soft-core porn to go with its songs – it’s a silly, tasteless, bewitching, and joyously nonsensical foray into romance, myth and taboo-busting.

Imaoka wastes no time establishing the movie’s go-for-broke giddiness. Asuka (Sawa Masaki) – frequently described as an “old lady” despite being around 30 – works at a fish-processing factory immediately adjoining a seemingly vast swampland. She is engaged to her boss (Mutsuo Yoshioka), who is both creepily possessive and sexually insatiable. Her daily monotony is broken with the appearance of a “kappa” (Yoshiro Umezawa), a swamp-dwelling creature of myth who subsists on cucumbers and usually sticks close to a body of water. This particular kappa follows her home, and quickly reveals himself to be a reincarnation of Aoki, a drowned boy Asuka attended high school with. Oh, and one of Asuka’s co-workers (Mutsuo Oshioka) works as a prostitute on the side, and quickly takes a liking to the kappa/Aoki. Sexual encounters ensue – not all of them consisting entirely of an anatomically “correct” human-on-human nature – and romantic entanglements follow.

Though Love is peppered with fairly graphic (though hardly pornographic) sex scenes, the film is never even remotely mean-spirited or even deliberately shocking; it’s much more concerned with developing its own strange sense of logic and exploring its lonely characters’ emotional hangups. It just so happens that these explorations take the form of conversations with a deity of death, unexplained transformations, and the frequent use of a strange shoulder-shrug motion that, in the world of the kappas, seems to have some sort of powerful declarative value.

As if the core concepts weren’t oddball enough already – the film essentially plays out like a romantic sex-romp take on Uncle Boonmee Who Can Recall His Past Lives – there are also about a half-dozen musical numbers, complete with hilariously repetitive, minimalist staging and choreography. The music in question is provided by pan-European duo Stereo Total, whose bouncy, repetitive,  synth-driven compositions perfectly suit the movie’s wonky energy. The film’s key collaborator, though, is Christopher Doyle, whose groundbreaking collaborations with Wong Kar-Wai (Chungking Express, In the Mood for Love, etc.) have made him the closest thing to a household name a DP can ever hope to be. Love is completely shaped by his playful style, as he incorporates time-lapse footage, countless intimate shots of the swamp’s plant life, and courageous amounts of natural lighting, all serving to feed into the sense of passion and eroticism literally gone wild.

The film’s bizarre, fetishistic nature only intensifies as it continues, so that by the time some mild necrophilia and the unorthodox deployment of a mystical charm get thrown into the mix, there’s no reason to bat an eye. Surely one of the most unique films of any kind to see release this year, Underwater Love is a date movie for the truly demented.

Simon Howell

Visit the official Fantasia Film Fest website

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