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.
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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.