Japanese novelist Haruki Murakami recently remarked in an interview that the line between reality and fantasy is much more permeable in Japan than in the west, with Japanese readers and viewers being more willing, more able, to accept and integrate the marvellous and fantastic into their lives and their stories. He invoked the notion of the boatman on the River Styx herding passengers onto his boat for their journey to the other, fantastical side; for the Japanese, he implies, it's not that long a voyage, while for Westerners it might be a more bumpy ride until they finally reach shore. (And a lengthier one, too.)
I suspect that Lady In The Water will go over much, much better in Japan than in Canada or America. In fact, I suspect that many in the west will actively dislike, if not hate, Lady In The Water. It's strange, and surreal, and more than a little clumsy, truth be told, and yet it's also something close to brilliant, I think.
There's always a point in M.Night Shyamalan's films where the mystical and the mundane become inextricably intertwined. The hardest part in any story of the supernatural is the point at which the characters suddenly, finally, believe in what's happening; in Shyamalan's films, that moment is always hard to pinpoint. It just happens. The characters accept; the audience accepts.
What are we to make of a film in which a woman is found in a pool in a Philadelphia housing complex, eventually requiring the help of all of its inhabitants to find her way back home?
I'm not sure, to be honest. But there's a tone and a texture to this film, to its understanding of myth, to its acknowledgement of the glorious realities that underlay our own mundane lives, that made me want to cheer and weep at the same time. You are worthy, the film is saying. You, the one in apartment 13-B, can save yourself and others. Things might not work out in the end, but your influence will be felt, and remembered, by others, by strangers, long after you're dead.
There are a number of technical reasons for why I like Shymalan's films: his preference for long takes; for creating a filmic space that has character and style without being obtrusive; his use of sound to enhance and subtract meaning. This time he also has the brilliant cinematographer Christopher Doyle, an Aussie expat who usually lenses Chinese flicks, to augment the colours and tones with his trademark impeccable -- and, here, restrained -- taste.
But there's something else in all of Shymalan's stories, a sense of wonder, a sense of grace that underlines and highlights his plotting. He is a populist, make no mistake; we are not talking about a Godard or a Truffaut or a Bertolucci. He wants to be liked, perhaps a little too much. But he is also willing to go out on a limb, and risk failure, even great failure, to achieve essential human truths.
Oh, and those moments. They're there, in all his films. Those moments where the music swells, slightly, and things start to come together, and the characters' humanity is revealed, and we are made to feel, only briefly, that the world has a mystical and magical underpinning that is here, goddamnit, if only we'd look hard enough and long enough. If only we'd put aside our adult ingenuities and oh-so-sarcastic point of views.
Look, I can see the criticism of this film coming a mile away. (I mean, the fact that the least likeable character in the entire piece is a film critic who gets his comeuppance should hint that the critical response to this film is going to be, well, blunt. Film critics hate to be made fun of.) There is some racial stereotyping that could be deemed offensive, but which I find, ultimately, transforming, part of a larger statement on the ways that we communicate, the enclaves that we build that keep us together and drive us apart. All the characters start out one-dimensionally, but are slowly, gradually revealed to be deeper.
I don't think westerners are ready to accept a film that blends fantasy and reality so comfortably together. We're too jaded and cynical. Give us Superman, yes, but a merwoman in a pool? Come on. And this is supposed to move me? Please.
Well, it did. It moved me. All of Shyamalan's films have, and I've always been surprised by that fact. It's rare that a film or book actually does move me, but this one did. In some ways, it's a strange and odd and ragged jewel of a film, like none I've ever seen. It is a kind of fairy tale, and perhaps we're told for that sort of thing.
The director thinks so, too. At the beginning of the film is a short explanation (voiced by the typically solemn unseen narrator) that explains who these creatures are, and their somewhat tangled relation to the human race. I wasn't sure that this was necessary; too much exposition, I thought, and at the beginning of the film, no less.
Now, I'm not so sure. Maybe us westerners do need to be reminded of magic tales and ancient rites. I think Shyamalan was warning the audience: This a film about myth, and I'm telling you that right from the get-go, so that you're ready and prepared and willing to go where I'm taking you.
This is one of those films that I think is 'advanced', to steal Esquire writer Chuck Klosterman's term. Everyone will hate it, but it's ahead of its time. Of this I am sure. (Like Kubrick's Eyes Wide Shut, and Stone's Alexander.) I hope people give it a chance, and not scoff and roll their eyes and laugh out loud as the film goes along. (Boy, can I see that happening.) I hope people think about this film, too, because I think it says a lot about who we are as people, and what we need from each other. There's a line in the film that you might miss if you're not listening carefully, something about how people are drawn to a place almost against their will, that they congregate without quite knowing why. The characters in this film do just that: lead simple lives, not realizing that they, too, have the potential, together, to allow the mythic and the extraordinary aspects of life to transform them -- and, in turn, allow their own humanity to transform others.
God, I hope that's true. Because if it's not, then fairy tales truly are just a myth.