Images of Water in the Competition Films: In Every Drop, Significance By Susanne Schuetz

in 57th Mannheim-Heidelberg

by Susanne Schuetz

A single drop of water falls. You hear it drop again, and again. We don’t see where it comes from, or what it fills up — a bucket or a well that might overflow as time moves slowly on. The sound and the image of the single drop of water is a recurrent theme in K.M. Madhusudhanan’s film Bioscope, ostensibly a story about how in the 1920s the early version of cinema, the bioscope, came to Kerala, in southern India. But Madhusudhanan’s underlying theme is the slowly mounting resistance against the colonial rulers, in the film also symbolized by the dead body of a white man washed up on the shore and calmly taken back to sea by three Indian boatmen. It’s an image the director repeats four times over the course of the film.

In contrast, water as the origin of life, as a calming and reassuring element, is used by Hungarian director Ferenc Moldoványi. His documentary Another Planet (Másik bolygó) tells us of the plights of poor and exploited children. He focuses on a girl selling cigarettes on the streets of a town in Ecuador; on little Mexican girls sifting through a rubbish dump to make a living; on child prostitutes and child soldiers in Congo; on young workers at a brick factory in Cambodia. Moldoványi frames these documentary shots (and re-enactments) with the story of a shaman, an elder of the Tarahumara Indian tribe, who blesses a young girl at an awe-inspiring, serene and tranquil lakeside location. Here he passes on his forefather’s wisdom about the creation of life. The film comes back repeatedly to this lake, to the privileged Indian girl playing happily at the bank of this calm and mysteriously beautiful water: Apparently, the director wishes to stress that people who still live in harmony with nature and the elements can face the world better than people struggling to make a life in the megalopolises of the world — a somewhat naïve stance considering the shocking testimonials of his little subjects, especially in the scenes from Congo.

The Taiwanese Film Beautiful Crazy (Luan Qing Chun), on the other hand, uses all four elements as symbolic means to tell a story of friendship, with water being the most important metaphor. Chi Yuan Lee’s non-chronological montage focuses on Xiao-Bu, who has fallen out with her school friend Angel — the final straw being an argument over a cigarette that escalates into a catfight in the pouring rain. Xiao-Bu finally gives in, but her relationship with Angel is over. Now Ah-Mi steps in: She wants to be Xiao-Bu’s new best friend and copies her in almost every possible way, moving in with her, wearing her clothes, kissing her boyfriend. The first steps of this new bond take place underground, the girls climbing down an earthy slide to meet in subterranean caverns where Ah-Mi has to rid herself of her former associations through the cleansing power of fire: Xiao-Bu makes her burn the love letter of a boy Ah-Mi has almost fallen for. The bond is later intensified during a meeting in the air, on a big ferris wheel. But Xiao-Bu still has her doubts about Ah-Mi, as shown by the next symbolic location, an empty swimming pool: The fantasy of it actually being filled with water only satisfies one of them. Their friendship has to grow, so when Xiao-Bu finally forgives Ah-Mi for coveting her boyfriend, the film ends with a peaceful, joyous scene of pure female friendship — acted out on the beach, close to the freeing ocean, the waves rolling on, the girls running about full of laughter.

The ocean can also be a danger, as Jennifer Phang’s wonderful film Half-Life (USA, 2008) shows. It is set in a possible future, not so far away, when nature rebels for being misused. The news channels constantly report on droughts and floods. Phang’s main story focuses on an 18-year old Chinese-American girl and her little brother, who need to come to terms with their parents’ divorce and their father’s subsequent absence. Eight-year-old Tim flees into a fantasy world, depicted as impressive animated sequences, where his family lives near the ocean, but it is a receding ocean that becomes more and more threatening with its life spilling over on the shore: Gigantic jellyfish, missing their necessary element, impose their force on the family, their tentacles squirming up the little boy’s legs. Another image is that of a gigantic manta ray, out of the water and floating above the heads of the mother and the two children — reminiscent of the airplane of the absent father, who was a pilot. The grounded sea creatures have been denied the opportunity to go on living in their natural environment, so they fight for their lives with force. As does the boy, his missing source of life being the love of his family.

The cleansing and cathartic power of water is also a recurrent topic — if one referred to somewhat clumsily — in a range of competition films featuring female leading characters: Paula Hernandez’ Rain (Lluvia) is set over a range of days in a wintry Buenos Aires suffering from torrential downpours. Alma is stuck — literally, in a traffic jam on the road — but also in her life. She has decided to live in her car after moving out of her house, leaving her marriage behind. The rain washes down on her car and on her body whenever she steps out for a moment. Suddenly a man appears, seemingly on the run, and gets into her car that is still stuck. They talk, she thinks her life over. And after 115 minutes the rain finally stops. Alma has found new energy and is ready to face the world again.

In Zornitsa Sophia’s Forecast (Prognoza), the main action takes place at the ocean, on the shores of a Turkish island, where men from different areas of the Balkans meet to go windsurfing. They can only get over the tensions in their group after Margarita, girlfriend of one of them, sister of another, disappears in the waves for a whole afternoon and night. Surrounded by the force of the ocean, she comes to a conclusion — as do the men. A parable about peace.

Stéphanie Duvivier’s film A Police Romance (Un roman policier), on the other hand, starts out as a gritty police drama focusing on the female police officer Emilie, who must maintain a tough exterior as the commanding officer of her Marseille station. But when her young Algerian colleague Jamil falls for her, she lets all her defenses down — most obviously after a rather ludicrous scene at a swimming pool. Chasing a drug dealer, both officers fall into the pool, after which Jamil suggests: “We need to get warm”. He drags Emilie under a nearby hot shower, sex ensues — and the film unfortunately turns into a preposterous farce.