Evil Does Not Exist review – Ryu Hamaguchi’s enigmatic eco-parable eschews easy explanation

Estimated read time 4 min read

Ryu Hamaguchi’s quietist, enigmatic eco-parable refuses easy explanations and perhaps it refuses difficult explanations as well. It’s a complex drama, a realist film teetering on the edge of the uncanny, whose very title points the way towards the idea that there are shades of grey in every judgment we make. It is arguably opaque and contrived, and will possibly exasperate as many as it intrigues, but I found it rippling around in my mind long after the final, extended shot with its two figures receding into the mist.

At first glance, this seems a cut-and-dried case of a story about corporate capitalism despoiling the environment: Takumi (played by acting newcomer Hitoshi Omika, a former AD in Hamaguchi’s previous films) lives with his young daughter Hana in a beautifully unspoiled village – almost like a figure in a folk tale. This idyllic spot, with a deer trail, is a short drive outside Tokyo: Takumi apparently makes a living chopping wood and gathering clear water from a stream in billy cans for a local noodle restaurant for whom this is an essential ingredient, far superior to mere tap water. Inevitably, this paradise can’t last: Takumi is already slightly uneasy at the gunshot-sounds of people hunting nearby, and for all that he is a devoted father, he has a bad habit of forgetting to pick Hana up from school.

Things come to a crisis when Takumi and his neighbours learn that a Tokyo company has bought up swathes of land nearby, intending to turn it into a “glamping” site for well-off city tourists. The town meeting that this company perfunctorily sets up, supposedly to listen to residents’ concerns, reveals that the proposed site’s septic tank will poison the water supply, that the company is pushing through this scheme to qualify for post-pandemic government grants, and that it is quite indifferent to locals’ worries in any case. The two blandly smiling functionaries who pretend to listen to the village’s complaints at the meeting are employees of a TV talent agency which has diversified into corporate PR.

But Hamaguchi’s narrative direction of travel becomes unclear. These two PRs reveal themselves to be unhappy and guilty at what they are doing, especially at their employers’ crass and clumsy plan to offer Takumi a “caretaker” job on the glamping site. A long dialogue scene during their car journey reveals that they are vulnerable human beings as much deserving of the audience’s respect as the villagers: and one even appears to have an epiphany or nervous breakdown right then and there in the woodland.

And even Takumi’s own attitude to the glampers isn’t clear. At the meeting itself, so far from angrily and straightforwardly denouncing the scheme, he points out that he and all the other residents are themselves incomers, after a fashion, part of a governmental plan that allowed farming in that region after the war, which itself damaged the environment, to a degree.

Hamaguchi takes all this at an absolutely unhurried pace, like that of a twig floating downstream. There are long stretches in which his camera will gaze up at the sky while drifting through the forest, and the musical score will sometimes hard-cut to silence at the end of a sequence like this. Weirdly, Hamaguchi’s camera appears to be attached to Takumi’s rear bumper in one scene in which he picks Hana up from school, the shot infinitesimally shudders and then moves along with the car at it leaves.

Why? What is the point of these compositional quirks? What is the point of the story itself? Most cinema signposts everything and – to quote the phrase apocryphically attributed to Billy Wilder – makes everything obvious, especially the subtleties. This isn’t what Hamaguchi is doing: his movie is closer to a prose poem, in which the larger building blocks of narrative might not fit together in the expected way but be as mysterious and extraneous as glancingly small details. I’m not sure that Evil Does Not Exist is the very best of his work, but it is presented with such calm assurance and artistry that it compels a kind of wistful, if uncomprehending, assent.

skip past newsletter promotion

Source: theguardian.com

You May Also Like

More From Author