For a culture in which the vision and craft of septuagenarians have never been less newsworthy, Shohei Imamura’s buoyant, embraceable new absurdism, Warm Water Under a Red Bridge, is an authoritative riposte—a young man’s walk in an old man’s shoes. At 76, Imamura has attained a seasoned artiste’s providence as Buñuel had before him, when experience and liberating dotage coalesce into an exhilarated view of the human zoo. The relative nihilism of Vengeance Is Mine and The Ballad of Narayama has given way, since the eight years of silence that ended with 1997’s The Eel, to a generous ardor for the capricious potential of movie narrative. Nonchalantly freaky and uncommonly pleasurable, Warm Water may well be the year’s best and most unpredictable comedy.
With Time Out and World Traveler, it also contributes to the popular Family Man Jumps the Radar paradigm (here comes the Times think piece), with Japanese über-star Koji Yakusho as a jobless salaryman taken to loitering with Tokyo homeless as his nagging wife waits in the suburbs. When he decides to pursue a golden Buddha mythologized by a soon-to-be-dead vagrant, the movie lands in a seaside village filthy with happenstance and quirk. No sooner does Yakusho’s stranger-in-town follow a woman (Misa Shimizu) to the grocery store than she falls into an undulating trance at the cheese counter, emits a puddle of clear moisture, and steals a hunk of feta. In the ensuing sexual tryst at her defunct-candy-factory house, the lovers are doused in a veritable gullywasher of vaginal fluid, which Imamura’s camera follows as it streams into the canal, attracting crowds of fish and gulls.
In several of the most ebullient sex scenes in any movie, Imamura manages to satirize the idealized plenitude of female biology just as he acknowledges its intoxicating impact, a warm sardonicism that extends to provincial life, romantic delusion, prostitution, and even racism. Indeed, in a sunny world of magical sexual floods, the only crime is industrial water-table poisoning. Based on a novel by peace scholar Yo Henmi, Warm Water shares much of its helix with Bill Forsyth’s Local Hero: a semi-mysterious fishing hamlet, quixotic natives, African immigrants, running gags, scooters, and peripheral mega-industry (here, a particle accelerator offers another angle from which to regard the collisions of love). Even so, the movie is thrillingly original in its comic rhythms; Imamura never belabors a joke, and in fact often cuts them short, just to maintain a tipsy imbalance. (The subtitles, often a ball-and-chain for a comedy, are superbly timed.) Grinningly rounding out his résumé of desolate modern men, Yakusho remains a weary wonder to behold—Imamura couldn’t have found a more effective foil for his hootenanny on any continent.
If Warm Water is unmistakably the work of a battle-seasoned codger, Majid Majidi’s Baran is the work of an atrophying conservative. A substantial maturation beyond the Disney-ish calculations of his first two movies, the film remains simplistic and gimmicky in the context of Iranian cinema. Baran‘s primary interest lies in the degree to which this populist director’s contemporaries have shamed him into a sub-Loachian realism. Set largely on a Tehran construction site manned almost wholly by illegal Afghan workers, the movie spends a good deal of time devoutly tracking labor: baking bread, plastering, menial hauling, retrieving huge rocks from a raging river, etc. One wouldn’t quite want to call this approach rigorous, particularly once the plot rises to the surface. After an old man breaks his foot on the job, his young teenage son (Zahra Behrami) takes his place. It’s not long until our hero, a naive Afghan conniver (Hossein Abedini), realizes that the weakling boy is in fact a girl in drag, and falls in love.
Rather wanly photographed, Baran is a cross-dressing message movie—an earnest effort is made at delineating the plight of refugee Afghans, and as a result the Yentl-ness of the narrative never bloats up with hokum. It never resonates, either; Majidi’s portrait of southwest Asian poverty is bloodless and fastidiously arranged, his regard for his thin characters negligible. For the third time, Miramax has decided Majidi’s are the sort of Iranian films Americans want to see—in 2000, his Color of Paradise was jammed into more than five times as many theaters as The Wind Will Carry Us. That Baran will bury Kiarostami’s ABC Africa seems foregone.
D.J. Caruso’s doper schizo-drama The Salton Sea (Warner Bros., in general release) is classically enervated neo-neo-noir, notable for only two factors: It’s the first film since The Doors that Val Kilmer (miscast as a trumpet-playing, punk-haired hophead) doesn’t sleepwalk through, and it contains the fully vented splendor of Vincent D’Onofrio as a psychotic, nose-eroded Mojave Desert meth dealer who uses a ravenous caged badger as a torture device. Eccentric enough to stave off doldrums, Caruso’s self-conscious debut is also eminently forgettable.