Ryûsuke Hamaguchi’s latest has a peculiar backstory. It was originally intended to be paired with singer Ishibashi Eiko’s live performances of her new songs. But instead, the Japanese director decided to go full out and transform the concept into a feature film. Evil Does Not Exist is a slow burn film with simple intentions and some ace filmmaking that is a successful portrait of the human condition.
Two talent agents from Tokyo come on behalf of a company wanting to install a glamping site in a rural Japanese village, Mizubiki. They are met by a range of differing locals at a meeting organised by the visitors. The glamping site is proposed as a business opportunity to attract tourists from nearby Tokyo, but the locals see through the money being dangled in front of them and hit back at the proposed plans. Having tourists upstream of the village’s river is a threat that is taken very seriously because it’s their sole water supply, the villagers don’t have working water pipes but instead must collect water from the river.
Local odd job man Takumi (Hitoshi Omika) is highlighted as a possible way to get the villagers to agree to the glamping proposal after the disastrous meeting. The two talent agents shortly return to try to sway him by offering him a caretaking job on the grounds, as well as tagging along and being helpful to him during their visit.
After the enormous success of Drive My Car, which won Best International Feature Film at the Oscars, Hamaguchi has done a Tarantino (making Jackie Brown after Pulp Fiction) by creating a film with smaller ambitions rather than trying to surpass his previous hit. It’s unobtrusive and modest, almost like an observational documentary. There is very little action, most of the film is just Hamaguchi observing the life of the villagers and how an intrusive force can shake the fabric of people’s livelihoods.
Hamaguchi asks the audience to have patience as it churns along at a pace unlike most contemporary films. The film is littered with many perfectly composed shots of Yoshio Kitagawa’s lush cinematography that linger on the village’s picturesque landscape; the way he shoots the forest is exquisite. Nature is arguably as important to the film as the characters, Hamaguchi takes his time showcasing the beauty of what the locals are protecting. The delicate balancing act shown in this film with how the residents live and the respectful manner that the agents approach the locals with, the second time around, is admirable because in reality there needs to be more of this to sustain the world we live in. Thematically, it’s all very relevant. Composer Ishibashi Eiko’s music, which will be performed live with shots from the film, is inextricably linked to Kitagawa’s visuals. The score is sweeping, melancholic and powerful, it adds a vitality to the actions on screen.
Just like Hirokazu Kore-eda’s Monster, Evil Does Not Exist is a metaphorical title so don’t go into Hamaguchi’s latest expecting the characters to fight evil forces, or anything quite that literal. In an interview with Variety, Hamaguchi compared the title to how musical artists name songs; it’s less akin to traditional titling of movies. The way the story wraps things up remains a little allusive as it ends with an unexpected shock with pretty much no explanation. It soured my overall thoughts because despite the film being modest it still feels like something is missing, perhaps an extension of twenty minutes would’ve done wonders? It feels incomplete. Albeit, aesthetically, the film ends perfectly with a visual mirroring of a notable shot early in the film.
Ryûsuke Hamaguchi is successful in authentically telling this rather civilian story, inspired by stories he heard when scouting, in a delicate and somewhat engaging manner. The director gets apt and natural performances out of the non-actors, who breathe life into this authentic telling of a simplistic story. It has little on Drive My Car, but it’s a film to be admired for its unique qualities seen very little in modern cinema.
This review is from the 2023 Venice Film Festival. Evil Does Not Exist will be distributed in the U.S. by Janus Films.