Critically acclaimed and on UK DVD at last, Lee Sang-il’s (Hula Girls) complex portrayal of grief and murder where nothing is black and white…
Yuichi (Satoshi Tsumabuki, Pandemic, Tokyo!, Dororo) is a construction worker who has lived his whole like in an unremarkable fishing village. No friends or lovers, he looks after his grandparents, who in turn brought him up when his mother abandoned him, his only escape is a souped up car. Turning to an online dating site, he meets Mitsuyo Magome (Eri Fukatsu, The Magic Hour, Monkey Magic), equally lonely in her job as a men’s clothing salesperson.
Despite Yuichi’s initial reluctance, their relationship grows, but his hesitation hides has a secret: he is the prime suspect in the murder of a young woman, Yoshino Ishibashi (Hikari Mitsushima, Sawako Decides, Love Exposure, Hara-Kiri: Death Of A Samurai). Will the secret tear them apart? Is Yuichi innocent or guilty?
(If you don’t want me to give away the ending, you’d better look away now – sorry, kinda difficult to discuss this one without spoilers!)
Based on Shuichi Yoshida’s award-winning and enormously popular novel of the same name, and adapted by the author and Zainichi Korean film director Lee Sang-il (Hula Girls), Villian is more than just a thriller, more than a romance: it’s a character study of disparate individuals united by one terrible event, the murder of Yoshino.
Is Yuichi a villain, a bad guy, as the Japanese title literally translates? Or was he caught in a heated moment when he made a terrible mistake? That is of course the original question raised by the books title. For author Shuichi Yoshida and director Lee Sang-il the answer is not black and white when it comes to human emotions: these are real people, with character traits good and bad, all flawed to some degree or another.
From Yoichi’s grandparent Fusae (Kirin Kiki, Kamikaze Girls, Pistol Opera, Returner) who loves her grandson to Yoshino’s arrogant boyfriend Keigo Masuo (Masaki Okada, Confessions, Life Back Then) to her grief stricken and vengeful father Yoshio (Akira Emoto, Ichi, Memories of Matsuko, Starfish Hotel) – no one is completely innocent or guilty in their actions.
If young Keigo suffers from his generations spoilt upbringing, having no thought for other people and the consciences of his actions, making a joke out of all that happens to him and ridiculing others, then Yoshio equally suffers from his generations little regard for women and their place, blaming his wife for his daughters alleged promiscuous relationships.
Perhaps the only exception is Mitsuyo, whose only crime seems to be that she romanticises her relationship with Yuichi, allowing herself to think the best of him; except in the final scene we are pulled along into believing better of him too.
Sang-il plays a clever trick inversing the Hitchcock motif of Rebecca and Suspicion, he allows us to doubt Yuichi’s guilt, not innocence, by leaving the true fate of Yoshino till late in the film. It allows us to feel sympathetic to Yuichi, and to believe his relationship with Mitsuyo could work.
Whether that really makes this film a thriller, I don’t know. Even originally, the publicity surrounding the film would have made audiences aware of Yuichi’s guilt. (And thanks to the UK DVD menu montage, I wasn’t left in any doubt either – yeah, nice one Third Window, ahem! ☺) It was never going to be a surprise. But the tone does fit with descriptions of the original novel as a crime noir, except the sex of the femme fatal has been swapped to male.
I know what you’re thinking, on paper this film shouldn’t work as well as it does. Sure, it might be interesting, but is it enough to keep you involved for the whole duration? Thinking of some of the outstanding recent Japanese movies, films like Tetsuya Nakashima’s Confessions and Sion Sono’s Cold Fish, this should by all rights be the lesser of the films.
But there’s coolness to Sang-il’s direction, it lets the actors do their job and create the on-screen emotion without the need to play up the sentiment. Often he pulls back where other directors might have gone further, given us something more shocking and violent, yet this gives us something we all can relate to.
And the actors really do a fine job. (Even if Hikari Mitsushima seems to be making far too much of a trend of hardly getting half an hours screen time before she pops her clogs.) Satoshi Tsumabuki and Eri Fukatsu are great in the lead roles, but the supporting cast is arguably finer. Kirin Kiki and Akira Emoto in particular stand out, as does Masaki Okada even if his role is the most unsympathetic.
The film swept the board at the Japanese Academy Awards, getting best actor and actress for the leads, and deservedly best supporting actor and actress for Akira and Kirin respectively. (Masaki was also nominated.) It also won best music for Joe Hisashi, who is best know for his work with Studio Ghibli head Hayao Miyazaki on Ponyo on the Cliff by the Sea, My Neighbour Totoro and Spirited Away, and Takeshi Kitano on Hana-bi, Kikujiro and Sonatine. And this is one case where that acclaim is justified.
There you go, I’ve given away much more than the end, but that won’t spoil your enjoyment of this excellently played movie. Surprisingly brilliant!
Villain is released on UK DVD by Third Window Films on Monday, 5 December.
Distributor: Third Window Films (UK)
Edition: DVD (2011)
Another solid release from Third Window, comes with a good transfer of the film, back with some decent extras. These include trailers, a discussion between lead star Satoshi Tsumabuki and director Lee Sang-il, and an hour long documentary on the making of the film.
Though a bit 'overplayed', the documentary looks in depth at how 58 minutes ended up being cut from the original edit, and two minutes were added while filming. Including many of the scenes themselves, it's a real insight into the filmmaking process and why filmmakers make the decisions they do.