The latest Asian movie releases and reissues. This week the bonkers Japanese comedy sex musical Underwater Love arrives on DVD in the UK from Third Window Films
UNDERWATER LOVE: A PINK MUSICAL
Shinji Imaoka, 2011, Japan
UK DVD (Third Window Films)
Widely considered to be one of the finest cinematographers in the world, Christopher Doyle has helped some of Asia’s greatest directors – from Wong Kar Wai to Zhang Yimou – turn in stunningly-lit, gorgeously-shot movies, not to mention his work in the West with the likes of Jim Jarmusch and Gus Van Sant. Which makes Doyle’s involvement in a low-budget Japanese sex musical shot in a series of single takes over five days a strange, surprising collaboration – and as it turns out, one of many strange, surprising things about Shinji Imaoka’s Underwater Love.
The subtitle – ‘A Pink Musical’ – gives a good idea of what to expect. Pink – or pinku – films are a type of stylised Japanese pornography; rarely explicit in their display of sex, these films have appeared in various guises over the decades. From the comedic, independent films of the 1960s, to the violent, often dazzling studio pinku of the 70s, directors have often used the commercial draw of sex to weave in other themes and genres. And as odd as it sounds, Underwater Love’s combination of sex and showtunes is actually perfect, as both porn and musicals have long shared a similar narrative structure – ie. an often flimsy plot stringing together a series of set pieces, whether shagging or singing.
In this case, the plot focuses upon Asuka (Sawa Masaki), an ordinary 35-year-old woman, engaged to be married to her idiot boss at a fish-processing factory. One day she encounters a Kappa – a mythical water-dwelling creature of Japanese folklore. Except in this case, the Kappa is the reincarnation of long-dead high school friend Aoki. Despite his beak and strange fish hands, the pair resume their friendship – but Aoki is here for a reason he dare not tell his old friend.
There’s little getting round the fact that Underwater Love does indeed look like a film shot for no money in less than a week. The camerawork is shaky, storytelling ragged, special effects cheap and the performances spirited but amateurish. And yet not only does the movie work in spite of this, it is the freeform energy that results from such an approach that makes it a frequent joy to watch. Of course, it helps to have Christopher Doyle behind your camera; he shoots the rivers, streams and deep woodland in which the Kappas dwell quite beautifully, like Malick on a shoestring. The songs – by German duo Stereo Total – are fun, kitschy numbers; Imaoka’s performers make only the vaguest attempts to sing in sync and the choreography is non-existent. Nevertheless, it’s impossible not to smile at the sight of a grinning Masaki flailing her arms around with unfettered, joyous abandon whilst singing about love and fish.
The sexual content certainly earns the film its 18 certificate, but it’s all pretty tame and played for laughs, in particular the scene in which Aoki’s randy co-worker gets to grips with his bulbous green phallus. And against the odds, the romance between Asuka and Aoki provides the film with surprising heart. Both were secretly in love with each other at school, before Aoki was taken away at a young age. His return as a Kappa allows the couple another chance to tell each other how they feel, even though Asuka is being stalked by a chain-smoking, sumo-wrestling hippie calling himself the God of Death. Underwater Love is the best romantic comedy musical to feature amphibious blowjobs and destiny-changing anal pearls you’ll see all year – buy it, watch it, love it.