MUBI is a streaming service catering to cinephiles who believe in quality over quantity. Each day, MUBI adds a new film to its library, where it will stay for 30 days, after which it circulates out and gives room for another new entry. Throughout 2018, we will highlight one MUBI movie per month to help illustrate the catalog’s breadth and importance.
Words are overrated. Or at least they are in terms of cinematic storytelling. As a visual medium, films have the potential to communicate stories through actions, cinematography, and direction, none of which are dependent on spoken language and can in fact be vessels for communication that you won't find on the pages of a screenplay. This appears to have been the thought process behind the joint directorial effort between Damien Manivel and Kohei Igarashi, whose film The Night I Swam is a wordless meditation on a day in the life of a six-year-old.
In Japan, a fisherman awakes before dawn to go to work, leaving his children behind at home. His six-year-old son—whom we never learn the name of, because there are no spoken words throughout the entirety of the film—awakes in the night and draws a picture of fish. When he and his older sister depart for school the next day, the boy slips away to go play in the snow, embarking on an adventure through rural Japan that finds him in solitude, regardless of whether he is with people or not.
What is the boy's purpose in doing this? Is he on an expedition to find his father? Could he even still be at home dreaming, as the film's title seems to imply? We're never completely privy to the boy's thought processes, but as outsiders, we are able to observe a few things. First, the boy is preoccupied with enjoying himself on his quest, whether he's barking at dogs, throwing snowballs, or swinging a stick around like a sword. Second, he has goals moment to moment, destinations he is set on visiting and things he aims to do in those destinations. However, we are meant to puzzle out what exactly the boy's motivations are as his journey progresses, and while we're never entirely certain of the end goal, we are certain of the emotions felt in the moment.
This is a film all about feelings at a certain age. For a child so young with a sister who doesn't seem to pay him much notice, the boy's life might very well be silent most of the time anyway. After all, who would he have to talk to? But that lack of vocalization doesn't diminish the fact that he is a child, prone to playfulness and in need of love and attention as much as anyone else. We get the impression that the boy's goals are serious and his problems sizable (at least from his perspective), but the moment to moment events of his life are about finding the next entertaining stimulation in that scattershot way in which children bounce from activity to activity. But in the silence of the boy's solitude, that vision of childhood attains a calm serenity.
The Night I Swam is largely left to the viewer's emotional interpretation, so while it doesn't hold your hand in the way that most narrative pieces do through spoken dialogue and exposition, it does leave an impression wholly unique. It is distinctive because it uses wordlessness as a gimmick, but also because it is an emotionally raw experience in that wordlessness, dependent on a sole child's performance and the necessary distance we feel from him. Discover the film for yourself here!