As explained best by the promotional material:
A programme of the National Museum Cinémathèque and co-presented by the Singapore Film Society, World Cinema Series is a monthly screening of works by the boldest and most inventive auteurs in the history of cinema. This series charts both the significant and less discovered territories of cinema - from the early silent era to underground films, and new wave film movements around the world, by some of the greatest mavericks and artists of film.
Discover the wonders and possibilities of the art of cinema on the big screen – as it was meant to be seen – with the World Cinema Series, shown every second Tuesday of the month at the National Museum of Singapore.
The series kicks off in September with the screening of Imamura Shohei’s stunning epic, The Profound Desire of the Gods (1968). Look out for Youssef Chahine’s Cairo Station (1958) in October and King Hu’s A Touch of Zen (1971) in November.
King Hu's Touch of Zen presented in 35mm - I am so there already!
This movie by the late Japanese director Shohei Imamura is indeed profound. From the mouthful of a title, and an intriguing one at that, to the themes involving incest and religious superstition, it was an intense movie to sit through (almost 3 hours of it all), and one that is so complex and layered, I'd have to admit I was lost at certain points in trying to decipher it. The reddish hue and faint subtitles didn't help my concentration, given the fact that it was an aged print that was used for the screening. But I digress.
Taken at face value, it tells of a story of an engineer who is tasked to an island to provide a well for a local sugar mill. There, the city man encounters bizarre islander customs and practises, some of which include having a mentally challenged teenage girl being offered to him as a wife. But what's even more strange, and I thought was confusing to me, where the inbred Futori family, where in a sequence early in the film, establishes the character relationships (which drove me mad that I gave up and started providing mental footnotes to the characters instead). Forbidden love and desire seems to be the order of the day, and it did seem strange that some of the explicit sexual scenes were a little awkward to sit through as well, given this relationship.
But I guess that's what Imamura is trying to address, in his words, that he's "interested in the relationship of the lower part of the human body and the lower part of the social structure", in having characters that are unconventional, not instantly likable, if at all. What I thought was easier to follow, were two plot threads. First, with the conflict between progress, modernity and tradition, with the coming of a city dweller and developer serving as a catalyst for change, introducing capitalism (farmers holding out selling their land for higher offers and profit) to a bunch of folks who so far, I thought were self sufficient living in that little island of theirs.
Second, how religion, or religious superstition, can be overbearing and permeate through society, or used by those with higher authority, to keep everyone else in tow. Which sort of reminded me of M Night Shayamalan's The Village. There were a number of scenes here which made reference to "god", and a character being some virgin priestess looking for a successor so that she can be off with a loved one - pretty pagan stuff here, but one which builds to a powerful climax in the movie as we see how focused a group these fanatical (?) followers can be.
All said, I'm ambivalent about whether I enjoyed the movie or not. There were some parts which appealed, some parts which didn't, and others which I just found hard to swallow. It's not that it's terribly edgy material, but somehow I can't put a finger to the queasy feeling I encountered while sitting patiently through the movie (and this is definitely not attributed to the less than pristine quality of the print). But as one of the lesser seen Imamura movies (it was later revealed during a panel discussion that it was a commercial flop when first released in Japan), I'm glad I made it a point to watch this, more actually in preparation for the director-in-focus screenings this coming weekend during the Japanese Film Festival.