East Asia doesn’t export many pure comedies over to the West, but that isn’t to say that humour doesn’t travel well. Neither 'Still The Water' nor 'Black Coal, Thin Ice' are comedies, but both are extremely funny in different ways. Their mirror-image narrative techniques also make for an unexpectedly refreshing double-bill, and let’s hope they get at least a limited theatrical run rather than going the way of most festival fare.
'Still The Water' (2014)
On a tiny island off the Japanese mainland, two teenagers are falling in love, and contending with their burgeoning sexuality for their attention is their difficult family lives. Kaito is a child of divorce, and resents his mother seeing other men. He can't understand why his parents split up, and this retards his ability to commit to Kyoko. Kyoko, meanwhile, is diving into the relationship with abandon, trying to deal with her mother's illness and imminent death. If that sounds grim, it's only because it is. But ultimately the message is that it's perfectly possible to live a life conversant with mortality and not fall apart, and with an acceptance of transience, in both life and love, comes an acceptance of others.
Director Naomi Kawase gives gravity to a theme that on paper looks rather vague, but is rendered personal and moving by the lyrical visual style and the terrific performances of Nijiro Murakami and Jun Yoshinaga. The contrast between the silence of daily life on a small island and the deafening noise of the tropical storms echoes the emotional volatility of adolescence, so unfortunately 'Still The Water' probably loses significant emotive and symbolic power outside a cinema screening. Pray for a distribution deal, or steal the biggest surround-sound system you can. Hey, why not both?
'Black Coal, Thin Ice' (2014)
'Black Coal, Thin Ice' is no less slow-paced than 'Still The Water', but is certainly more plot-heavy. Fan Liao plays alcoholic, former cop Zhang, reduced to scraping by on security work which he performs badly. When an old murder case is dredged up, he goes back on the job and starts to obsess over the prime suspect, a widow working in a laundry. It’s a tragedy, but without any overtures to moralising or discussions of fate. Director Yi’nan Diao doesn’t allow us to pity any of the characters, or to shovel them into the over-occupied narrative ditches that the premise might hint at.
Diao continually wrong-foots the viewers with changes in narrative tone, much like Kawase’s shifts in register. When 'Black Coal, Thin Ice' is funny, the humour bursts into scenes that are otherwise very serious. Other directors wouldn’t have the stones to commit so fully to the approach; just like tragedy can enter unannounced, arbitrarily, and alter the quality of a moment, so can humour. That audacity is as funny as the jokes themselves - unlike the sentimental and gentle humour of 'Still The Water' that complements the emotional context of the characters, 'Black Coal, Thin Ice''s humour is harsh, physical and piercing.
Both films screened at the 58th BFI London Film Festival. Find more info at bfi.org.uk/lff.