The story of a nude dude who washes ashore and into the lives of four young documentary filmmakers, Kôji Fukada’s “The Man From the Sea” probably wouldn’t be of much interest beyond Asian audiences if not for the fact that its director earned the Jury Prize in Cannes’ Un Certain Regard for his previous feature, “Harmonium.” This featherweight follow-up — which feels almost like a live-action manga, more concerned with the romantic entanglements of its central quartet than with the magical stranger referenced in its title — doesn’t necessarily belong on the festival circuit but could attract overseas distribution by virtue of such exposure.
More splish than “Splash,” the movie wants to be a modern-day fairy tale — yet another mer-myth rippling in the wake of “The Shape of Water” — but remains frustratingly ambiguous about the nature of the enigmatic Japanese guy (Dean Fujioka) who stumbles out of the crystal-blue water in the opening scene. The mystery man doesn’t speak at first, refusing to explain where he came from or what he’s doing in Banda Aceh, Indonesia, although he seems to be comfortable around aspiring journalist Ilma (Sekar Sari) and her endearingly awkward cameraman Kris (Adipati Dolken), who are interviewing survivors of the 2004 earthquake and tsunami — until they realize that perhaps this intriguing amnesiac (dubbed Laut, or “sea,” since he needs a name) might make a better subject.
That disaster provides both context and subtext for Fukada’s wispy narrative, including the suggestion from a journalist that Laut could be a “reincarnation of the tsunami victims” that might not be as far from the truth as the claim first sounds. Honestly, Laut could be pretty much whatever people want him to be: a magical allegory with the ability to heal human suffering from various ailments, but also the capacity to lure children to their deaths in dangerous waters. At one point, Laut holds out his hand and conjures a floating ball of water in his open palm — a neat trick that Ilma happens to catch on camera.
By centering the story on an amateur film crew, Fukada has found a clever way to update the played-out found-footage format, interweaving mock-doc details (otherwise incredible feats observed through their lens) with behind-the-scenes melodrama, much of it involving Kris’ crush on Sachiko (Junko Abe), who has come from Japan to spread her father’s ashes, and who happens to be the cousin of his old college friend Takashi (Taiga), whose mother, Takako (Mayu Tsuruta), is doing disaster relief work in Aceh province — where more than 150,000 were killed in 2004.
Although the movie cooks up a cute flirtation between Kris and Sachiko, tossing in some heat with Takashi and Ilma for good measure, such romantic foibles feel like a distraction from the more intriguing question of Laut’s origins and the reason he has entered their lives — which surely can’t have been to give Kris the confidence to ask Sachiko out. (It’s as if, after discovering the telekinetic Eleven in Season 1 of “Stranger Things,” the kids had spent the remaining episodes playing board games in their basement.)
That’s certainly different from movies like “Under the Skin” or “The Man Who Fell to Earth,” in which so much of the plot revolves around observing how an alien figure interacts with humans. Here, Laut is a vaguely Jesus-like figure (he even walks on water) that the other characters curiously take for granted, leaving him unattended for long stretches. The film proves most fascinating when he is working miracles — rendered convincingly enough for what appears to be a modestly budgeted production.
Star Dean Fujioka (“Fullmetal Alchemist”) is by far the film’s best special effect: a tall, striking actor whose resting facial expression (lips dimpled at the corners in what looks like a faint smile) suggests that he knows something amusing the rest of us don’t — which of course, he does. Only Laut fully understands his purpose, and it’s a secret he’ll be keeping with him when he inevitably takes his leave of them. It is only then, in the final 15 minutes or so, that this listless film finds its way, offering its title character a spectacular farewell. But while such supernatural diversions are pleasant enough, they come and go without illuminating the Indonesian natural disasters that rather misleadingly seemed to be the film’s reason for existing.