Minimalism can be a funny thing. In the hands of a master, it can be completely enthralling, the vacuum of emptiness containing more beauty than the most lavish widescreen image. In the hands of neophyte, it can be boring, dull, alienating and pretentious. It doesn’t help that the line between two extremes can be very thin. Robert Bresson, Andrei Tarkovsky, Carl Theodor Dreyer and Yasujiro Ozu all seemed to have played with minimalism at a level beyond that of most film makers, even today. Gus Van Sant tries hard, and while films such as "Gerry" and "Elephant" look fantastic, the minimalist style which is meant to depict the alienation of the characters ends up alienating the viewer. It’s a dangerous game to play, and not everyone is up to the task. Naoki Ichio, who had previously worked in radio and theatre, uses a minimalist style in his first feature, "A Drowning Man", a surreal, metaphorical film about the disintegration of a relationship.
Tokio (Shinya Tsukamoto) is a salary man who comes home one night to find his wife dead in the bathtub. He carries her to the living room, places her on the couch, and then and breaks down into tears. However, instead of calling the police, or an ambulance, he drinks himself into a stupor. When he wakes up the next morning he finds his wife Kumiko (Reiko Kataoka) is alive and well. From that point on Tokio descends into a paranoid state, unsure of what’s real and what isn’t. He has fits of anger towards his wife. He watches her from the shadows while she eats. He has her friends over, asking them if they notice anything different about her. But Kumiko does feel different. She accepts the fact that maybe she did die, and that it changed her, but Tokio can’t.
"A Man Drowning" dances that fine line between pretentious and brilliant. Based on Naoki Ichio’s only internal struggle after the divorce from his wife, the film is entirely representative of the stages he went through as he realized their marriage was over. The symbolism and metaphors that line the film are rich and deep, and for that I give Naoki Ichio credit. It isn’t an easy film to digest, and for some it could require multiple viewings, but it is a very rewarding film. The minimalist style works for the most part. The long moments of silence between Tokio and Kumiko grow more uncomfortable, a feat largely attributed to the great performances by Shinya Tsukamoto and Reiko Kataoka. The long, static takes and the use of one set, Tokio and Kumiko’s apartment, creates a feeling of isolation from the rest of the world, and at the same time a sense of claustrophobia not only from their environment but from one another. Unfortunately, it can at times be cinematically very bland. Not just because besides a few pans, the camera is completely static, or because the lighting is naturalistic and flat, but because much of it is visually quite dull even in its framing. Don’t get me wrong, there are a few shots that are absolutely gorgeous, but, like Van Sant’s use of cinematic detachment, it can almost alienate the viewer. Now it’s not nearly as disaffecting as Van Sant’s work, but at times it does come close. Regardless of that fact, it’s still a rather cerebral film that for the most part accomplishes what it sets out to do, create a cinematic representation of the end of a relationship.