Imagine Atom Egoyan’s The Sweet Hereafter — a devastating, years-long descent of a small town in the aftermath of a communal tragedy that traces grief and guilt across several characters — if it were weirder, Estonian, and inspired by the Japanese art tradition of “eight views.” If you can’t imagine that, don’t worry, you’re normal. If you can, you’ll love 8 Views of Lake Biwa. Most Westerners, including the Baltic home audience for Marko Raat’s film, will have little if any pre-knowledge of this East Asian art tradition. Imported to Japan via China, the label describes paintings depicting eight perspectives of one locale, which are predetermined and include things like the returning sails at Yabase and the evening snow at Hira, in search of something like an essence of the place. As the title suggests, Lake Biwa of Shiga Prefecture, the largest freshwater lake in Japan, has taken on such a special position that it’s sometimes referred to as the “eight views of Lake Biwa, ” and this appears to be their first prominent cinematic translation.
But that title is a bit misleading because the lake in Raat’s film is not Biwa but Lake Peipsi, the massive body of water located between Estonia and Russia. An isolated remnant of Orthodox Russians who fled 17th-century homeland oppression now hold the role of custodian over the lake and make due as a fishing community. Occasionally, modern geopolitics slips in to intrude upon the fairytale luster, such as with the mandated military service of a young man; though, for the most part, the village carries on with a lifestyle that could be lived in either the 17th or 21st centuries. Much like Egoyan’s quintessentially Canadian The Sweet Hereafter, the social bonds of the community become manipulated and perverted in the face of a shared tragedy. And also like Egoyan’s film, the central tragedy concerns the unexpected death of several teenagers after an accident involving the town’s central body of water. Only Hanake (Elina Masing) and one of the adults on the boat survive.
If 8 Views of Lake Biwa is an attempt to essentialize the character of a place, it’s a place with wounds that can never be mended. Part of what it means to be of Lake Peipsi, as glimpsed through the eight episodic vantage points, is to try to leave the community. It’s a place full of sin but without the morality found in the fairytales embedded deep within the European heritage. The lake, like God, has the power to give and take life, and both are approached with the same attitude of reverence and theology of sustenance. Most importantly, it’s a broken community searching to be made whole; from kinky sexual art to strange practices of silence, each member of the fishing community searches for something that they can never find.
8 Views of Lake Biwa is most intriguing as a formalist project. Sonically, there is more whispering — often the internal monologues of Hanake — than just about any film this critic has ever seen. One gets the sense that certain things aren’t meant to be said too loud here. A reserved familiarity with the eight views may incline a viewer to expect beauty and even grace; instead, they will be assaulted with arbitrary violence and tragedy, the latter of which is passed around like the bird flu. The film is also notably weird, in mostly productive ways. The screenplay, likewise courtesy of Raat, embraces an entertaining, almost Brechtian strangeness and never strays too far from its more serious ambitions of geographical essentialism through an episodic return to the lake landscape and chapter titles. In one of the most memorable visuals, a man asks the lone painter in the community to paint his new wife. He asks with the intention to impress and make comfortable his new spouse, and also to help him warm up to her. The woman in the final painting has more in common with a victim of Pablo Picasso’s Guernica than it does with any of the great portrait subjects of art history, but nobody takes offense, nor does anyone find the painter’s attempt dishonest — and this speaks to the doomed character of the people of the lake.
This is Raat’s first feature film, and it’s clear he has no interest in the way of the safe commercial film, the route first-time directors so often feel compelled to take. Sometimes, his absurdist film even approaches outright experimental terrain. In fact, it’s the chapter structure encompassing the eight landscape images, which would in more narratively controlled films perhaps register as one of the more alienating features, that here provides the signposting that keeps 8 Views from mere vanity or empty showmanship, and offers viewers something far more contemplative and profound.
Published as part of IFFR 2024 — Dispatch 1.