Villain -- Film Review

A beautifully realized and deeply resonant film about the dark side of passion.

The Japanese film, directed by Lee Sang-il, was included in 13 categories of the country's equivalent of the Academy Awards.

HONG KONG -- Villain explores the ambivalence of good and evil through a woman who falls in love and runs away with a murderer. Voicing despair as acutely as the cry of a wounded animal, it expresses the unbearable longing to be loved and the equally unbearable pain of loving someone. Lee Sang-il’s direction is elegant, nuanced yet powerful where it counts.

Villain is honored with 15 nominations out of 13 categories in the upcoming Japanese Academy Awards. Sales to usual Asian territories like Hong Kong and Taiwan were secured early. With its 139-minute duration unfolding with lyrical rhythm, coupled with the refusal to succumb to a cathartic end (tragic or otherwise), this is a film to be pondered over by a mature art-house audience.

The central love plot is preceded by an unconventionally long but riveting first act where the focus is actually on the female murder victim, and how her behavior renders the crime morally ambivalent. White-collar girl Yoshino (Hikari Mizushima) daydreams about going steady with well-heeled playboy Masuo (Masaki Okada). At the same time, she strings along manual worker Yuichi (Satoshi Tsumabuki), whom she met online and beds for pocket money and to kill time. This backfires on both men and becomes her undoing on a highway on a cold, rainy night.

In the interim before the police realizes that Yuichi is the culprit, he gets serious with another Internet date, a single, love-starved saleslady Mitsuyo (Eri Fukatsu). As passionate and desperate as the couples in a classic nouvelle vague amour fou, they hit the road and flee to a lighthouse (which looms symbolically as both refuge and prison). Yuichi tells her, “if only I met you earlier, our lives would have been different,” but the lapel-grabbing climax deliberately leaves a provocative blank as to whether his murderous intentions are spontaneous or in his nature.

The narrative slips in and out of the lives of those touched by this incident. The precise editing gives form to these shifts in time and locations by making emotional connections even between supporting roles. Most affecting are parallels between Yoshino’s father Ishibashi (Akira Emoto) and Yuichi’s grandmother (Kirin Kiki). Both honest, hardworking small-town folk who’ve done their best for their offspring, their pain and helplessness are also identical.

Pitiful yet courageous, these people mirror the three central figures’ lonely existence. Ishibashi’s anger at Masuo’s indifference to Yoshino’s death: “Have you ever loved someone so much that their happiness fills you with joy?” prompts one to reflect on the egoism that colors the younger protagonists’ longing for love. Together, they form a poignant but unsentimental canvass of life in provincial backwaters – a stifling world of rigid class divisions, trivial dreams and repressed desires.

Thanks to Mitsushima’s electrifying performance, the audience while observing what a vain, hysterical and spiteful person she is, simultaneously see her through Ishibashi’s prism as a precious life cruelly cut short. Mitsushima meets her match in Fukatsu, whose less demonstrative style actually achieves greater depth and finesse. She imbues her persona with tantalizing opacity, prompting one to wonder if she is a stoic, a hopeless romantic, a masochist or stalker. Initially, Tsumabuki seems ill-suited to his role (who would believe the baby-faced heartthrob can’t get a girl?). However, once he becomes a fugitive, his haunting and hunted look takes on the tragic charisma reminiscent of Montgomery Clift in A Place in the Sun.

Technical credits are superlative. The Kyushu country locations are rendered with desolate beauty, while the fluid cinematography gives the film a rhythm simulating the danger and intoxication of a car swerving around wicked bends.

Music composed by Hayao Miyazaki regular Joe Hisaishi has the torrid, melodramatic sweep of a Douglas Sirk classic. Its rich, sonorousness ironically underscores the story’s bleakness.

Opened in Japan on Sept. 11
Production companies: Toho Co. Ltd.; Dentsu Inc.; The Asahi Shimbun Company; Sony Music Entertainment (Japan) Inc.; Nippon Shuppan Hanbai Inc.; Horipro Inc.; Amuse Inc.; KDDI; Yahoo Japan Corporation; TSUTAYA Group; Asahi Shimbun Publications Inc.
Cast: Satoshi Tsumabuki; Eri Fukatsu: Hikari Mitsushima; Masaki Okada; Kirin Kiki; Akira Emoto
Director: Lee Sang-il
Screenwriters: Lee Sang-il, Shuichi Yoshida
Based on the novel by: Shuichi Yoshida
Producers: Tomoyo Nihara; Genki Kawamura
Executive producers: Yoshihige Shimatani; Yashhiro Tsukada, Minami Ichikawa; Yashhiro Tsukada
Director of photography: Norimichi Kasamatsu
Production designer: Yohei Taneda
Costume designer: Kumiko Ogawa
Music: Joe Hisaishi
Editor: Tsuyoshi Imai
Sales: Toho Co. Ltd.
No rating, 139 minutes