You will be redirected back to your article in seconds

Film Review: ‘The Voice of Water’

This fine drama from director Masashi Yamamoto offers a penetrating glimpse into the workings of a religious cult in Tokyo's Korean community.

Hyunri, Shuri, Jun Murakami, Akio Kamataki, Riku Hagiwara, Kei Oda, Natsuko Nakamura, Hayate Matsuzaki, Izumi Minai, Marshal Abdul Rahman, Jung Hyung-ju.  (Japanese, Korean dialogue)

Official Site: http://www.imdb.com/title/tt4296022/?ref_=fn_al_tt_1

A cult priestess’s quest for her ethnic and spiritual roots lends depth to “The Voice of Water,” an atypical crime drama set in Tokyo’s seamy Koreatown that unravels riveting layers of suspense, violence and humanity. In taking on the equally controversial subjects of religious cults and zainichi (Japanese-Koreans), veteran indie helmer-scribe Masashi Yamamoto eschews any aura of mystique or overtly political angles, instead wryly dissecting the business calculations and power games within such communities, which never cease to surprise or bemuse. Following its Berlinale premiere, “Voice” should be heard loud and clear on the festival circuit.

A stalwart figure in Japan’s independent filmmaking community, Yamamoto enjoyed critical success as a producer when he set up Cinema Impact, a workshop for edgy shoestring-budget projects such as Hitoshi One’s “Be My Baby.” Making a Berlin comeback after his “Carnival in the Night” and “Robinson’s Garden” were invited to the festival in the ’80s, the director has delivered a mature, story-driven exploration of the new generation’s spiritual void. Although his dense screenplay could do with some trims, notably in scenes of trance-like rituals and ghostly apparitions, overall, this is a gripping yarn, as well as the rare zainichi film to focus on positive aspects like cultural lineage rather than harping on routine themes of discrimination and racial discord.

Min-jung (Hyunri), a Japanese-Korean in her 20s, is roped into running a streetside fortune-telling stand in Shinjuku by her BFF, Mina (Shuri). Despite Min-jung’s half-hearted attitude, advertising exec Akao (Jun Murakami) discerns business potential in her beauty and exotic background. Taking over management, Akao reinvents her as miko (priestess) of a new religious sect, “God’s Water.” The film illuminates how easy it is for those haunted by childhood trauma or grappling with harsh realities to latch on to any support system, such as new recruits Mamoru (Hayate Matsuzaki) and Sae (Natsuko Nakamura), whose grueling confessionals exert a morbid fascination.

As the gig takes off and the miko becomes a hit on social media, she becomes unnerved by her hold over her gullible followers. No matter how Mina reassures her that being able to inspire belief is more important than actually having any powers, Min-jung feels her conscience being pricked. She proceeds to immerse herself in a Korean shamanistic community in the deep woods of Saitama prefecture, reclaiming her grandmother’s legacy as a shimbang (Korean shaman). As she digs into her maternal roots on Jeju Island, momentous chapters of immigrant history are intertwined with intimate family recollections in a lyrical montage that employs archival footage as well as dreamlike imagery.

Whether posing serenely, reciting tree-hugging mantras scripted by marketing hacks or letting her hair down in a bar, 28-year-old Korean-Japanese thesp Hyunri can switch from air-headed to beatific in a heartbeat. She thoughtfully calibrates her character’s transformation from a frivolous young femme, content to earn a fast buck, into a visionary confident of her own metier. Ironically, it’s when Min-jung genuinely wants to guide her followers that she clashes with the organization’s profiteering motives.

In a creepy dramatic twist, cult members who initially won the audience’s sympathy reveal their unsavory sides. While the theme of cults abounds in Nipponese cinema (Sion Sono’s “Love Exposure,” Akihiko Shiota’s “Canaria,” Izumi Takahashi’s “The Soup, One Morning”), most of these movies highlight the group’s crazed mentality and psychological desperation. Yamamoto, on the other hand, cuts right to the mundanity of this “religion,” rendering in engrossing detail its business model, marketing strategies and how the system attracts back-biting careerists.

A second strand with hardboiled elements follows Min-jung’s deadbeat father, Mikio (Akio Kamataki), as he descends into yakuza hell, dragging his daughter into the nefarious web of mobster Takasawa (Kei Oda) in the process. The plot thickens further thanks to Shinji (Riku Hagiwara), a baby-faced teenager who carries on a vague flirtation with Min-jung while fleecing Mikio. Despite a scattered feel, the threads eventually come together in a harrowing climax that underscores Yamamoto’s unsparing cynicism.

While the mesmerizing Hyunri is the film’s prime mover, she’s buttressed by an excellent ensemble cast that limns a lurid range of warped or questionable behavior. Murakami (“Still the Water”) perfects Akao’s cool-hand corporate image, then subverts it with bursts of smarminess and lechery. Shuri impresses with her convincing rapport with Hyunri; Mina’s feisty defense of her friend not only counterbalances the other characters’ disloyalty, but proves a rare example in contempo Japanese cinema of a genuine female friendship, sans treacly comicbook trappings.

Diving into the bowels of Shinjuku to capture its sleazy night world as well as Okubo, the bustling nexus of Tokyo’s Korean community, Futa Takagi’s clean, steady lensing sets the film apart from indies of the grungy, handheld school. Lush natural locations in Saitama and Jeju Island accentuate the city’s claustrophobia. Other tech credits are fine.

Popular on Variety

Film Review: 'The Voice of Water'

Reviewed at Berlin Film Festival (Forum), Feb. 11, 2015. (Also in Hong Kong Film Festival.) Running time: 129 MIN. (Original title: "Mizu no koe o kiku")

Production: (Japan) A Cinema Impact presentation/production. (International sales: Geta Films, Spirits Project, Tokyo.) Produced by Shinichiro Muraoka. Executive producer, Masashi Yamamoto.

Crew: Directed, written by Masashi Yamamoto. Camera (color/B&W, HD), Futa Takagi; editor, Kenji Yamashita; music, Dr. Tommy; production designer, Fumiaki Suzaka; art director, Toshihiro Isomi; costume designer, Wardrobe; sound (Stereo), Shintaro Kamijo, Takuro Kochi, Michio Koyama; visual effects supervisor, Ichiro Omomo; Korean shaman adviser, Jung Hyung-ju; line producer, Masafumi Yoshikawa; assistant director, Takumi Nozawa.

With: Hyunri, Shuri, Jun Murakami, Akio Kamataki, Riku Hagiwara, Kei Oda, Natsuko Nakamura, Hayate Matsuzaki, Izumi Minai, Marshal Abdul Rahman, Jung Hyung-ju.  (Japanese, Korean dialogue)

More Film

  • Mickey Mouse waves to members of

    Spider-Man, Spicer and Splashy First-Looks: Everything We're Looking For at D23

    As if Disney hasn’t owned enough weekends this year at the box office, the biennial D23 Expo will light up Anaheim, Calif. over the next three days to celebrate the content monolith. From a new Netflix-competing streaming platform to scores of movie and series reveals — along with a few hot controversies to confront — [...]

  • Angel Has Fallen

    'Angel Has Fallen' to Dominate Modest Box Office With $20 Million Weekend

    Gerard Butler and Morgan Freeman are leading the way at the North American box office with “Angel Has Fallen” on its way to about $20 million, early estimates showed Friday. Should forecasts hold, “Angel Has Fallen” will take in about double the next title, Universal’s second weekend of raunchy comedy “Good Boys” with about $10 [...]

  • Aracne

    Sanfic Standout ‘Aracne’ Filmmakers Discuss the State of Chilean Genre

    A key project at this year’s Santiago Lab, the Santiago Intl. Film Festival industry forum for promising Latin American projects, Florencia Dupont’s “Aracne” is representative of a push from the next generation of Chilean filmmakers into genre cinema and the themes it can explore. “Aracne” turns on Beatriz, a young journalist at a small Santiago [...]

  • Eduardo Machuca

    Chile’s Eduardo Machuca Unveils Machuca Films Slate (EXCLUSIVE)

    SANTIAGO, Chile – Eduardo Machuca, the former film co-ordinator of Chile’s Ministry of Foreign Affairs, has launched his own production company, Machuca Films. “After 25 years at the ministry, I felt I needed to tap my creative side,” said Machuca, who is also tying the knot on Saturday (Aug. 24) with a former Sanfic staffer, [...]

  • Robert Downey Jr. Disney Legends Ceremony,

    Robert Downey Jr. Reveals He Was Busted for Smoking Pot at Disneyland

    Robert Downey Jr. celebrated his Disney Legend status by sharing the endearing tale of how the first time he visited Disneyland, he was arrested. The Iron Man actor was being honored in Anaheim at Disney’s biennial D23 convention. After a brief introduction by Disney chief executive officer Bob Iger, Downey felt he had to come [...]

  • Thandie Newton Reminiscence

    Thandie Newton Reteams With 'Westworld's' Lisa Joy on 'Reminiscence' (EXCLUSIVE)

    Following her Emmy win for her performance on “Westworld,” Thandie Newton is joining the feature directorial debut of the show’s co-creator. Sources tell Variety that Newton is set to join Hugh Jackman and Rebecca Ferguson in Warner Bros.’ “Reminiscence,” directed by “Westworld’s” Lisa Joy. WB acquired the rights to the package after this year’s Berlin [...]

  • Ming-Na Wen poses at the Disney

    Original 'Mulan' Star Ming-Na Wen Weighs in on Remake's Controversy

    Ming-Na Wen, who played the leading voice role in the original 1998 version of “Mulan,” has spoken out about the recent controversy surrounding Disney’s forthcoming live-action remake, which has been co-opted by China’s authoritarian regime to attack Hong Kong protestors. “We are living in a world right now where there’s so much change and confusion [...]

More From Our Brands

Access exclusive content