Venice Film Festival ‘Evil Does Not Exist’ Review: Ryusuke Hamaguchi Delivers A Constantly Surprising, Intellectually Agile Film
By Stephanie Bunbury, Deadline September 4, 2023
Hamaguchiis not interested in taking the easy road to a satisfactory resolution. On the contrary; his story runs up hard against any kind of easy ending.
Nature is nourishing, but harshly indifferent to the people who idealize it.. Nature cannot be evil, only indifferent. But what about us?Hamaguchi’s constantly surprising, intellectually agile film asks us questions that could take a lifetime to answer.
Shinrin-yoku, which translates as “forest-bathing,” was a Japanese invention of the 1980s: a meditative therapy that connects burnt-out urbanites with the healing power of nature.
Pine trees sway overhead, the streams trickle, sunshine falls between the branches on to the snow, white mountain crags soar in the distance. Eiko Ishibashi’s music, led by the thin lilt of a violin, swirls in the background. We see Takumi (Hitoshi Omika) crouched over a spring filling water bottles; shown in mid-shot, surrounded by the murmuring forest, he is part of his landscape, methodically spooning water into the containers. Who apart fromHamaguchicould make such a functional activity look and feel like a meditation? Takumi’s small daughter Hana shares his communion, learning the trees’ names as they pass through the forest. Which ones you can’t touch. Which ones you can eat.
These extended shots are crucial to our understanding of what is at stake when news comes that a Tokyo company, Playmode, has acquired land near the village and is rushing through plans to build a glamping site. Tokyo is not far away, but this has never been a tourist destination; their single noodle restaurant, which uses the fresh water Takumi collects, is a pitstop for locals. There is the first of several abrupt changes of tone when the community gathers for a so-called “briefing” from two Playmode representatives. It is a Japanese version of a Town Hall. Everyone is elaborately polite, but the tension is palpable; it is as if we have been suddenly plunged into a Frederick Wiseman documentary, where everything is lit with strip lights and the camera treats everyone equally. The mealy-mouthed company reps – one man, one woman – fumble for explanations, but the villagers see the problem clearly: sewage. If the glamping site goes ahead, their precious water will be ruined.
Ostensibly, the scene has now been set for a story of a community’s victory over fat cats – a story we have witnessed many times, on screen if not quite enough in life – where everything gets sorted out and the audience leaves feeling the world is going to be all right after all. When the two company reps return reluctantly to the village, having been told to buy off the most articulate objectors by offering them jobs, it seems as if they might join the cause themselves.
Hamaguchi has a remarkable gift for letting conversations meander into unexpected corners, as they can do when two people are sitting side by side in a car; without intending to change each other’s lives, these two salary persons scrape away each other’s defenses until their discontents are exposed to the crisp air. He admits he is lonely. She says that what she most likes about working for Playmode is “it’s full of scumbags, just as I expected… there’s no whitewashing.”It isn’t much to like. Why doesn’t she leave? By the time they reach Haragawa, they have both decided not to go home.
This is very much of a piece with Drive My Car, which also embraced people with all their faults, weaknesses and acceptance of second-bests.These corporate lackeys are cast by Playmode – and by the David vs Goliath narrative – as villains, but they are not evil; they feel the allure of the trees and the vitality of the villagers’ practical lives.He chops up some wood and says he has never felt better. She asks nervously whether deer are dangerous; she wants reassurance to make that leap. You could be lulled into believing a happy ending – maybe two happy endings – lie at the end of the road, where they will be turned and the villagers will win.
But then – of course – the tone swings again, taking us into a darker story as night falls. Hamaguchiis not interested in taking the easy road to a satisfactory resolution. On the contrary; his story runs up hard against any kind of easy ending.Nature is nourishing, but harshly indifferent to the people who idealize it; quiet animals, including human ones, can be ferocious when threatened; good people may have fury within them. In this instance, they do shocking things, but the shock is not an empty provocation: it is an invitation to think about what makes an act evil, what it means to act on instinct. Nature cannot be evil, only indifferent. But what about us?Hamaguchi’s constantly surprising, intellectually agile film asks us questions that could take a lifetime to answer. Drive My Carwas manifestly a masterpiece.Evil Does Not Existis less grand, less declarative – its meanings slip away as soon as you try to grasp them – but it is a brilliant piece of work.