Warm Water Under a Red Bridge

Veteran Japanese director, Shohei Imamura, two-time winner of the Cannes' Palme d'Or (The Ballad of Narayama, 1983, and The Eel, 1997), returns to the festival for the fifth time with Warm Water Under a Red Bridge, a romantic fable with mythical and sexual overtones that represents one of his lightest films. Using again The Eel's central couple, Koji Yakusho and Misa Shimizu, this whimsical tale casts them as a down-on-his-luck middle-aged man who falls for a young and beautiful woman, who possesses the magical powers to attract fish and make flowers bloom out of season, among other talents.

Known for commanding control over every element of his productions, Imamura has directed only 19 features over the past four decades, but each film has played the global festival and arthouse circuits to great appreciation. Overly long and less successful than previous efforts, Warm Water is destined to follow the same route, with limited theatrical situations outside Japanese and Euro markets.

Yosuke (Yakusho), a formerly affluent businessman, has lost his job and his wife; she keeps nudging him via cell phone about unpaid bills. And old friend, Taro (Kazuo Kiramura), a street philosopher who dispenses wisdom to anyone who cares to listen, tells him about a remote place and a wooden house overlooking a red bridge, where he hid a valuable Buddha statue stolen from a Kyoto temple. Taro's sudden death shocks Yosuke, but also presents opportunities for retrieving the precious artifact and changing his lot.

Yosuke sets out for Noto Peninsula and finds the house intact. It's is now occupied by a senile fortune teller (Mitsuko Baisho) and her beautiful granddaughter, Saeko (Shimizu). He follows the girl to the supermarket, where he observes her stealing a package of cheese, while water seemingly seeping from her body. It turns out that Saeko suffers from a bizarre condition that makes her secrete huge quantities of water whenever she experiences physical pleasure; she can only relieve the mysterious water inside her by acts of sex or stealing.

Overcome with this entrancing encounter, Yosuke decides to accept her hospitality and stay on. He gets a job as a fisherman, moves into a local inn, and rushes to service whenever she signals him–by mirror–that her water fountain is rising. Time after time, Yosuke observes with amazement how water explodes from her body and flow into the river, where its unique qualities attract fish, which in turn satisfy the local fishermen.

Yosuke's interest in her mysterious illness leads to a love affair–kind of amour fou–which manages to cure her. That he's unable to find the priceless Buddha becomes a secondary, unimportant concern, compared to the genuine treasure he was sent by Taro to find: The love of an extraordinary woman. Nonetheless, the premise of a beautiful woman, whose body contains a magical spring from which water emanates whenever she experiences pleasure, is amusing up to a point, but it's contained in a slight and redundant narrative that overstays its welcome.

The film also takes a wrong turn in its last reel, which depicts in flashback Saeko's former lover, a criminal who has served time in jail. However, the revelation that Taro was the lover of Saeko's grandmother is pleasing, giving the fable a satisfyingly symmetrical closure.

Spread throughout are hilarious vignettes, in which an African athlete, who has chosen this forsaken place to train for the Olympics, is always seen jogging. The running joke is that whenever Yosuke rushes to please Saeko, he bumps into the runner. As a visual image, it slightly recalls the mad cyclist always seen riding in Bill Forsyth's Local Hero. Obviously, Imamura intends to say something about racism in contemporary Japan, but the commentary, like the rest of the narrative, is weightless.

Imamura's films are often populated by strong female protagonists, who fight with men but ultimately accept their inferior status in a sexist. In this respect, Warm Water displays his hope that the new millennium will not only make advancement in science and technology, but also bring significant progress for women.

Like his good pictures, Warm Water is marked by sensuous earthiness and a ribald sense of humor that shows an audacious flair for depicting the human condition entertainingly. Bold eroticism, a recurring element in all of Imamura's work, is here carried to extreme–even camp–dimensions. The watery orgasm scenes, largely accentuated by the music, get bigger and longer, though as visual gags they become increasingly tedious due to endless recycling.

Yakusho, who played the bus-driver in Eureka, gives a strong performance that holds the episodic picture together. But it's Shimizu, a recipient of Japanese Oscar for The Eel and one of the country's most sought-after actresses, who gives the film its heart and erotic touch as the eccentric nymph-mermaid.