It took this long for them to take up a film by the veteran Japanese director, Shohei Imamura, and it's certainly a teaser for the rest of his films. This engaging fantasy sees Koji Yakusho as Yosuke Sasano, coming to terms with redundancy and the death of a sage-like friend, the elderly Taro (Kazuo Kitamura). The old man had already proposed that Yosuke resolve the rut he is in by visiting an old haunt of his and recover a misappropriated golden Buddha statue. It can be found in a house by a red bridge where the river meets the sea, the one with the trumpet flowers. "I didn't hide it," Ysuke recalls him saying, "I just forgot to take it with me." He locates the house and finds it occupied by two women, the elderly and senile Mitsu (Mitsuko Baisho) and the young Saeko (Misa Shimizu). He first realises that there is something odd to Saeko when he sees her shoplifting, a curious pool of water forming around her feet. Saeko, it turns out, periodically wells up, quite literally, when she's turned on. And so is the tap, the warm water gushing out, a bit of a shock when the spray hits Yosuke the first time without warning. A squirter? Heck, she can multi-task and clean the windows while she's at it. Her waters escape the house and run into the river enervating those waters, the fish jumping, her sexual fruition as much the confluence that feeds the natural world as is the converging of the river and the sea. The reason to fish the spot suddenly becomes richer. As a menstrual metaphor it's slightly confused.
Problematically, Yosuke is a family man, the marriage beginning to fail since the loss of his job, and Tokyo is a long way from here. He is given work, initially for three weeks, with a trawling crew and rents rooms in a guest house, putting himself on call for when her well is overflowing, signalling for him by hand-mirror and sun. For him the water is an extra kinky appeal but for Saeko it is not a pleasure, it is a curse, and he is only the latest man to try and cure her, to abate its effect. "When I well up I have to do something wicked," she states in answer to her shoplifting expeditions. She further quips that "If you weren't a good man I'd stab you to death," just before some sneaky facts roll in to add viewer concern for our hero. Rumours fly that she has driven men to their death before now, that she is a monster and that her mother was a pagan priestess who followed her Konsei relics into the waters and drowned in them. The real dangers come in from elsewhere. Though with Imamura taking everything with such a leisurely approach the threat is rarely considered.
It is a delightfully realised film, a blessing of amazing images, like a lifetime has been pooled over each image. The camerawork is smooth, contributing greatly to the leisurely feel, even when it is following people sprinting or the trawler boat returning from a haul besieged by seagulls. The music adds to the magic considerably, from the liltingly light flute to the warped psychedelic synthesizer that accompanies the colourful dreams that haunt Yosuke. There is even that rarity the perfect conclusion, a final image that is unexpected, funny and reasonable.
Imamura was 74 when he took this on with nothing more to prove, hence the meditative pace. He'd received his second Palm D'Or three years earlier for The Eel and has been making films for over 40 years. If Warm Water Under A Red Bridge is so freely available now it can only have helped that Imamura had that recent Cannes notice while his star, Koji Yakusho (a carry over from The Eel) was coming back to him with the unprecedented US box-office success for a foreign language film that was Shall We Dance. Supporting information is minimal on the DVD, and though the film is the important thing, too many poor films have the support material when we don't want or need it, whereas there are many remarkable people making wonderful movies and information on them is not easily forthcoming. Warm Water Under A Red Bridge is an odd but endearing brew, gentle despite its occasional unembarrassed crudity. See it for the likeable Yakusho, see it for the lovely Shimizu, see it for the great supporting character cast and see it for the immaculate cinematography. Just see it.
DVD extras: star and director filmographies, film notes by Tony McKibben, a trailer.