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Underwater Love
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by Jay Seaver

"Art-house talent on a silly skin flick."
5 stars

SCREENED AT THE 2011 FANTASIA INTERNATIONAL FILM FESTIVAL: I'm not sure how many pink films are made in Japan per year. Not as many as in the sixties and seventies, but still a fair amount; they tend to be short and low-budget, and there's always a market for skin flicks. Fantasy themes are probably not uncommon. But how many are musicals? With scores and songs by a European pop group like Stereo Total? Creature effects by Yoshihiro Nishimura? Cinematography by art-house staple Christopher Doyle?

That's the eclectic bunch working on Underwater Love, along with veteran pink filmmaker Shinji Imaoka, and the result is a trip. It is absolutely still a pink, with the softcore sex scenes arriving right on schedule, and despite some of the high-profile names working with him, Imaoka neither attempts to elevate nor subvert the form (aside from the relatively long 87-minute running time), but attempts to make the best little sex movie on a loopy subject that he can.

What is that subject? Well, it's about Asuka (Sawa Masaki), a recently-engaged woman in her mid-thirties who sees a kappa (a sort of turtle-like water sprite) near the fish-packing plant where she works, and is shocked to later find out that he is her high-school friend Tetsuya Aoki (he turned into a kappa after drowning in the swamp at 17). Now she's trying to keep Aoki (Yoshihiro Umezawa) a secret from her fiancé (and boss) Hajime (Mutsuo Yoshioka) while he does the stuff he's come to do. That's not just discovering that his abandoned old house is now a local make-out spot - there's a God of Death come to take Asuka away unless Aoki can stop him.

That sounds dramatic, and it is, technically, but the movie is as laid-back as the playful kappa themselves - even the God of Death is pretty nonthreatening, just there waiting to do his duties. He's a funny character, actually, as are most of the cast, with jokes that bounce between dry peculiarity and good-natured raunch. The songs are simple and bouncy (and at times either in direct opposition to or completely unrelated to what's happening on-screen) with dancing that is less choreographed accompaniment to the music than exuberant reaction to it. The sex serves more or less the same purpose - it's people having fun, giving the audience something nice to look and smile at. And, yes, creature-effects maestro Nishimura is among the ones have fun in those scenes, but his kappa make-up is just right all around - minimal and basic enough to fit with the pink style, but well-enough done to survive a Christopher Doyle close-up.

Folks who know Doyle's work will be pleased to find that, no, he's not just showing up for a paycheck. It's really a beautifully shot film; Doyle uses the grainy stock that is a pink staple to give everything an inviting tactility, and occasionally yellows overwhelm the image to give a combined impression of golden sunlight and inevitable decay. Director Imaoka makes good use of Doyle and his other collaborators, letting them do good work while walking a fine line between light and self-deprecating.

Of course, one of the best collaborators he can have for this is Sawa Masaki. She jumps into the strangeness with abandon and genuine good humor, presenting us with a woman who, though she has seen her share of disappointment and sadness, still has an upbeat view of the world. Masaki pulls off the silliness of the film off with utter sincerity, and maintains a glow about her even at an age when others making adult films - even ones as gentle as this - tend to be worn down and just going through the motions.

Or so I'm told; I don't pay much attention to the genre until somebody does one odd and ambitious enough to be festival-worthy. "Underwater Love" is certainly odd, but it's the relatively limited ambition of putting a smile on the audience's face by any means necessary that makes it such a pleasure.

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originally posted: 07/22/11 23:53:41
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OFFICIAL SELECTION: 2011 Tribeca Film Festival For more in the 2011 Tribeca Film Festival series, click here.
OFFICIAL SELECTION: 2011 Fantasia International Film Festival For more in the Fantasia International Film Festival 2011 series, click here.
OFFICIAL SELECTION: Fantastic Fest 2011 For more in the Fantastic Fest 2011 series, click here.

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Directed by
  Shinji Imaoka

Written by
  Shinji Imaoka
  Fumio Moriya

  Sawa Masaki
  Mutsuo Yoshioka
  Fumio Moriya
  Hiroshi Sato
  Emi Nishimura

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