The world depicted here is a bleak one characterized by a dearth of sympathetic figures; the adults populating it display self-serving or antagonistic tendencies to varying degrees. The meek shall devour the strong, if given the chance, and the most powerful run the risk of becoming the biggest losers among these forces that see influence as power. Religious fervor does not end at building a strong community, as we are shown activities amongst group members aimed at destroying other organizations operating in the same fashion. Indeed a kind of small-scale religious war appears to be unfolding in the alleyways and drab office spaces of the city’s outskirts.
An unsettling picture is painted, with details colored in here and there, rather than a tightly focused narrative. At its center is Minjung, a charismatic Korean national who has been propped up as a celestial figure, delivering sermons and offering spiritual healing to the members of the group she represents. She appears to be comfortably numb to the corruption she lays a hand in, til a crack in her resolve begins to form.
This is contributed to by the appearance of her father, whom her group reluctantly allows to take refuge from vicious mobsters looking to collect on a debt. As Minjung loses her taste for illusory power in favor of a more honest spiritual path, the vicious cycle she is part of becomes more and more clear. Others are right there to shackle to her profitable position while others see an opportunity to knock her from the throne and assume her role. Walking away is not an option, though in Yamamoto‘s vision, escape is the only true source of awakening.
For such a surreal subject matter, the workings of the film are depicted in a direct and unaffected manner, though there are occasions where fever pitches of hysteria are achieved. They are nothing if not rattling. In a few members’ recruiting, or perhaps it’s a recon mission, edm music blasts in a nightclub awash in flashing strobe lights during an afternoon rave, as followers in brightly colored t-shirts jump up and down. A chaotic climax, where several nefarious groups intersect in a forest setting, is punctuated by bells ringing jarringly. The sequence is as savage as it is frantic, leaving no question of the film’s dire perspective on this little known social phenomenon.
This is one of the darker slivers on offer at this year’s Japan Cuts Festival, which rings too true to not reflect a large amount of reality. It is sure to leave one with concern and pity for those caught up in this system of subjugation, and revile for those orchestrating it.
VOICE OF WATER plays the evening of July 17 at the Japan Society. For information and tickets, visit the JAPAN CUTS page of their website.