Snake Beneath the Flower Petals 湖底の蛇 Dir: Rina Tanaka (2016)

Snake Beneath the Flower Petals   Snake Beneath the Flower Petals Film Poster

湖底の蛇 Kotei no ja

Release date: 2016

Running Time: 59 mins.

Director: Rina Tanaka

Writers: Rina Tanaka (Screenplay)

Starring: Mika Kuroiwa, Midori Kimura, Hikari Shinoda, Ryuki Nishimoto, Seiji Okabe, Kensaku Tamura, Hono Miyabe, Yasumi Yajima,

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Rina Tanaka is a directing talent to watch out for based on the short Filled With Steam (2017) which I saw at the Osaka Asian Film Festival 2018. It was a film that had breathtaking moments of painful loneliness that were skilfully shot that I still remember clearly even as the year draws to an end. Snake Beneath the Flower Petals was at Nippon Connection 2017 and is one of the works she made in order to complete the master’s degree course at Tokyo University of the Arts’ Graduate School of Film and New Media where she studied under Kiyoshi Kurosawa and Nobuhiro Suwa and here she captures the isolation of people in a film which displays a superb sensitivity for translating emotions onto the screen

Yamakita village (I’m assuming in Kanagawa) is located by a lakeside between heavily forested mountains. It is a picturesque and tranquil place as we can see from the panning shots that Rina Tanaka starts the film with but there is a big and noisy event going on. After seeing the setting from a distance we get up close with the opening ceremony of a new bridge and people are gathering to walk over the structure. This is a symbolic as well as physical act because it is known as the “first-crossing ceremony” and it involves having families with three generations, something meant to signify a strong family bond, cross the bridge in order to usher in an auspicious future but the women of one family are undergoing a period of strife where the bonds are fragmenting.

Amidst the happy faces is that of 50-something Yumi Misono (Mika Kuroiwa) and her appearance is of a tired and fed-up person suffering this event when she has something else on her mind. Stood to her side is her mother Kazuko (Midori Kimura) who seems to be genuinely happy but one can tell it is something of a performance as fleeting looks of concern appear every so often and her words are shadowed with dark meanings. Yumi’s daughter Yoh (Hikari Shinoda) brings up the rear and she beams with a bright smile but this newly wed is also putting on a facade and there is something going on with her.

The film jumps back in time to take us into the lives of these three women, each of whom have different secrets which isolates them and acts as a weakness. 

Yumi is lonely. She lives with a husband who no longer looks at her and there is a massive lack of affection on his part as seen in multiple exchanges and dialogue where he values Yumi as caretaker alone. When an old flame from her college days enters the picture, she becomes a new person with a grin and a potentially dangerous passion takes root and slithers around in her mind.

If home life can be empty for a woman, a career can be a trap for someone unprepared for hardship. Koh’s luminous smile masks the fact that her life as an illustrator is tough because her career doesn’t live up to her hopes. Dialogue from other characters full of praise about her success primes us for the gritty reality that market demands ignore her artistic talent but she maintains her facade.

Both women lives a fantasy of some sort and it helps them keep their sanity. We learn their lies and anticipate some disaster but this story is less about dramatic fireworks and more about meaningful change and this comes from Kazuko who has a secret herself, one that allows her to be open, blunt, ignore custom and be real, and she exercises her experience and genuine love for her family to bring her daughter back to reality and make her aware of Koh’s struggles.

Rina Tanaka patiently sets up how Yumi and Koh’s secret/lie acts like a delightful delusion and defensive behaviour through dialogue and dream sequences, intercutting between stories and allowing the camera to settle on actors who show different shades of emotions and then takes the characters on an easily understandable journey to a positive change of sorts through a script that builds up to an intriguing ending. The revelations are real and relatable and there is no sentimentality in the way Tanaka depicts them. Her camerawork patiently watches Yumi run the house solo and it is an emotionally barren space. For Koh, home life is good but Tanaka’s script shows the facade she puts on when talking about work quite neatly by contrasting a dream sequences with reality and we see that facade crumble as her frustrations bubble up. There are other examples especially through the actors whose body language speaks volumes, one example being sight lines which are noticeable when we realise they barely look at each other. When they do look at each other, characters are pushed out of their comfort zones.

One of the loneliest places to be is in a relationship where nobody knows or understands you and Tanaka shows the little lies and the barriers people throw up in order to get through the day. We see that truth on screen in this story and there is some catharsis at the end of the narrative despite the open ending, the sense that the characters will find the right path. 

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