Underwater Love is weird. No, I mean really weird. The unconventional premise attracted me, as I perused through this year’s thick Fantasia program. In the movie, a dreamy-eyed innocent fish factory worker meets a kappa, a Japanese anthropomorphic turtle-like water spirit that, as it happens, was a high-school comrade of hers. The two will eventually end up together, but not before several sexual misadventures.
If Underwater Love only sported this warped story, it would be noteworthy. But, the way Imaoka, a legendary pink director, structures his narrative, within the conventions of pink eiga films and musicals, is more interesting. Closely related to soft-core pornography or (s)exploitation cinema, pink eiga, or pink cinema, refers to a genre of Japanese films which includes erotic films, without the eroticism being the central part of the film. Imaoka’s characters innocently react to their sexual urges while having repeated encounters with archetypical erotica characters (the vixen, the egocentric boyfriend…), leading by the movie’s end to the blossoming of the principal characters through their sexual awakening. In its sexuality, the movie is unsettling because its interspecies sexual romps evoke bestiality and a reversal of the natural order.
Within all those conventions of pink eiga and human sexuality it plays with, Underwater Love adopts a whole different set of film conventions, those of the film musical, and synthesizes them to their barest expressions. It reminded me of Singaporean film Sell Out! I had seen at Fantasia a couple of years ago which tried to toy with these conventions to comedic effect, but the intent there wasn’t a reflexion on the genre but a playful part of the film. In Underwater Love, there is more a conscious will to enunciate these conventions, lay them bare to the audience, especially with the segueing into the song sequences (which is usually plot-generated, but is here purposely jarring) and with the lyrics and how they relate to the characters (here the lyrics are nonsensical and abstract, providing no relevant information on characters or situations).
The whole film is about experimentation; the biggest example of this being director of photography Christopher Doyle’s contribution to the film, handling, as he does, the beautiful photography and the camera. From its opening shot of the Kappa character, buried in a green sea of water lilies, there is a definite sense that Doyle is trying new things here that he may not have been inclined to elsewhere. I remember him talking in an interview about his work with M. Night Shyamalan on Lady in the Water (2006) and the way he described their collaboration felt more like work-for-hire than an artistic challenge, less passionate and more technical, and I thought: Doesn’t M. Night know who this guy is? Has he not seen Temptress Moon or Days of Being Wild or Hero? Maybe that’s why Doyle prefers to work with Wong Kar-wai, and their team-up has created some of the ’90s most stunning visuals. Doyle’s work on camera in Underwater Love is no less deliberate, staying away from bourgeois aesthetics and revelling on the imperfections of raw, hand-held camera work.
Although Underwater Love is not a good narrative film, that hardly seems to be the goal. It serves instead as an odd artistic work on sexuality, the film medium, and the way we’ve been conditioned to respond to it.