'The Third Murder' ('Sandome no satsujin'): Film Review | Venice 2017

Courtesy of Fuji Television Network
A complex and engrossing examination of truth.

A confessed murderer lies to his lawyer in Kore-eda Hirokazu's arty courtroom drama.

Mystery skirts metaphysics and a courtroom turns out to be no place to determine the truth in Kore-eda Hirokazu's mysteriously beautiful The Third Murder. Everything that is obvious and straightforward in the first scene (we even get a good look at the murderer's face) is cast into doubt by the end of the film, posing serious questions about the judicial system and the concept of judging another human being. 

While many cuts above a standard mystery in terms of the direction, acting and technical work, the film's philosophical side will probably leave many genre fans cold. Even Kore-eda fans may need to adjust their expectations. Though different in feeling from the Japanese writer-director's perceptive family tales like After the Storm, it has the same clarity of thought and precision of image as his very best work.

Quite the opposite of the hard-boiled flatfoots of crime fiction or the grungy, alcoholic detectives who populate Chinese movies, the hero here is a refined attorney of impressive self-control. Shigemori (Fukuyama Masaharu, the rich dad in Like Father, Like Son) is called in by his older associate Settsu (Kotaro Yoshida) to take over an open-and-shut case. A man who has spent 30 years in prison for a double murder and been released has confessed to killing his boss, the owner of a small factory, and burning his body. There's no question that Misumi (Yakusho Koji) is guilty; their job is to get him a life sentence instead of the death penalty.

The problem is he keeps changing his version of what happened.

Shigemori, the son of a retired judge, knows the law well and coldly plays by the books. His goal is not to bring out the truth in court, but to use every legal strategy at his disposal to help his client. "Legal strategy IS the truth," he informs his bright but overly idealistic newbie partner (Misushima Shinnosuke). Their defense strategy feels like a script meeting as they read and change the lines they want their defendant to pronounce in court. As one character puts it, "everyone is play-acting."

The team's first interview with Misumi takes place in a modern prison where the entire minimalist decor is a glass wall that separates the prisoner from his visitors. It will play an important role in all their encounters, reflecting their faces and offering a semi-permeable barrier through which they can communicate.

Shigemori is separated from his wife and has a 14-year-old daughter who feels her father neglects her. The only time we see her is when he gets her out of a shop-lifting scrape, then blames himself for her anti-social behavior. But she leads in psychologically to another girl, Sakie (played by Hirose Suzu from Our Little Sister), who was raped by her father when she was 14. She is the daughter of the murdered factory owner, and she knew Misumi surprisingly well.

In very subtle ways, Shigemori and Misumi start to overlap. The investigation takes the team to Hokkaido in the north, where a snowy wonderland of startling beauty brings the attorney memories of his own childhood.

It was Shigemori's father, the judge, who originally sentenced Misumi to jail for killing two loan sharks, instead of handing him the death penalty. Now he regrets it; if Misumi had died back then, the new murder would have been prevented. Thirty years ago, he muses, they believed that social circumstances caused crime; today they think the opposite.

Meanwhile, the trial date grows closer. The straight-laced prosecutor, a young woman, objects to Shigemori's methods and accuses him of preventing his client from "facing up to his guilt." But Misumi changes his story in an "exclusive confession" he sells to a magazine, in which he accuses Sakie's mother of being his lover and commissioning the murder to cash in on her husband's insurance. With every new twist, the legal team hoofs it back to the prison to confront Misumi. Yakusho's weathered, expressive face is superimposed over Fukuyama's smooth, socially correct features in a resonant image of melding.

Kore-eda begin injecting his own doubts into the story. Is there anyone who should never have been born? Is there someone up there playing with our lives? Should anyone have control over another person's life? These fuzzy, unanswerable questions can pass as the director's personal obsessions and aren't crucial to enjoying the film, but they do broaden the perspective.

The filmmaker's regular cinematographer Takimoto Mikiya tells the story in blindingly clear images that are a pleasure to look at, but also in huge close-ups that fill the screen with two faces anxiously confronting each other in profile, or faces half visible and half in unsettling shadow.  

The extreme delicacy of Ludovico Einaudi's musical score is a subtle mood-shifter.
 
Production companies: Fuji Television Network, Amuse, Gaga Corp.
Cast: Fukuyama Masaharu, Yakusho Koji, Hirose Suzu, Hashizume Isao, Ichikawa Mikako, Matsuoka Izumi, Misushima Shinnosuke, Saito Yuki
Director, producer, screenwriter, editor: Kore-eda Hirokazu
Director of photography: Takimoto Mikiya
Production designer: Taneda Yohei
Music: Ludovico Einaudi
World sales: Wild Bunch
Venue: Venice Film Festival (competition)
124 minutes

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