Cannes Check 2014: Naomi Kawase’s ‘Still the Water’

Welcome back to Cannes Check, In Contention's annual preview of the films in Competition at this year's Cannes Film Festival, which kicks off on May 14. Taking on different selections every day, we'll be examining what they're about, who's involved and what their chances are of snagging an award from Jane Campion's jury. Next up, the first of two female directors in the lineup: Naomi Kawase's “Still the Water.”

The director: Naomi Kawase (Japanese, 44 years old). It's possible for certain filmmakers to become prominent, celebrated figures within the festival circuit without making much of a dent in the real world, even in the art-house sphere. Naomi Kawase is a good example. Favored by selectors and juries alike, even her most generously awarded films have secured minimal international distribution — making her at once a familiar and unfamiliar presence in the lineup.

Born and raised in Japan's rural Nara district, Kawase initially studied TV production in Osaka before becoming interested in documentary directing. She worked extensively in non-fiction film before making an auspicious narrative feature debut in 1997 with “Suzaku” — which won her the Camera d'Or at Cannes. She has since made six more narrative features, regularly interspersed with documentary work — taking on themes of Japanese social, gender and economic imbalances in both formats, and often blurring the line between the two with her preference for naturalism, location shooting and non-professional actors.  

The talent: In the case of “Still the Water,” however, Kawase appears to have mostly opted for pros — beginning with actress Makiko Watanabe, whose previous credits include “Love Exposure” and Kawase's own “The Mourning Forest.” Others include Hideo Sakaki (“Ju-on: The Grudge”), Tetta Sugimoto (“Departures”), Miyuki Matsuda (“Audition”) and veteran Fujio Tokita (an alumnus of two Palme d'Or winners, “The Ballad of Narayama” and “The Eel”). Kawase wrote the film herself, and is reunited with her “Mourning Forest” editor Tina Baz.

The pitch: Naomi Kawase films tend to be lighter on story than on theme and sensory detail, and “Still the Water” sounds a typically oblique proposition — one that combines the director's usual preoccupation with man-nature boundaries and cultural tradition and ritual. Allegedly inspired by a tale from Kawase's grandmother's youth, the film is described as a romance, and takes place on the idyllic Japanese island of Amami-Oshima. On a summer night of traditional dancing in the community, a 14-year-old boy and his girlfriend attempt to solve the mystery of a dead body found floating in the sea; in the words of the official synopsis, the pair “learn to become adults by experiencing the interwoven cycles of life, death and love.” Expect a fairly solemn brand of whimsy, and a lot of lovely scenery.

The prestige: As mentioned above, Kawase may not be a big-name auteur beyond the festival scene, but she's a Cannes heavyweight all the same. Since winning the Camera d'Or in 2007, four of her five subsequent features have been selected for Competition. She was a surprise winner of the Grand Prix in 2007 for her dreamy, environmentally-tinged study of ageing and enlightenment, “The Mourning Forest,” though it didn't do much to expand her niche appeal — the film was never released in the US or UK. Further proving the Cannes bosses' commitment to her, Kawase was selected to serve on last year's Competition jury.

The buzz: Minimal, to be honest. Which is not to say that the film won't be well-received — just that Kawase remains very much a fringe figure. Her last film, “Hanezu,” met with an indifferent response at the 2011 festival, when she was one of four female directors in Competition; being the more famous of just two this year will ensure her a bit more attention, especially with many pundits speculating that her deliberate, sensual sensibility may be to the liking of jury president Jane Campion.

The odds: For those reasons, the bookies have currently placed Kawase in the front tier of Palme d'Or contenders — Paddy Power has her in third place with 8-1 odds, while Jigsaw Lounge likes her chances only a little less, placing her at 10-1. The narrative of the only female director to win the Palme d'Or crowning the second seems a little pat, but sometimes things can be that obvious at Cannes, as when Isabelle Huppert plumped for Michael Haneke — it's as good a theory as any. Still, Kawase's style may be too acquired a taste to unite the jury for the top prize; perhaps a second Grand Prix is a likelier bet.

The date: “Still the Water” premieres on Tuesday, May 20.

Next in Cannes Check, we'll look at the first of two veteran Brits in Competition: Mike Leigh's “Mr. Turner.”