Aku wa sonzai shinai
starring Hitoshi Omika, Ryo Nishikawa, Ryuji Kosaka, Ayaka Shibutani
written and directed by Ryûsuke Hamaguchi
by Angelo Muredda Evil is a big-city land developer running a roadside Zoom meeting with his gormless staff about the fastest way to turn a self-sustaining village into an anonymous corporate glamping site in Ryûsuke Hamaguchi's Evil Does Not Exist. An ice-cold followup to the more reassuring awards darling Drive My Car, it's a remarkable slow-burn thriller about the human capacity to look away from the downstream effects of our disruptions to natural equilibrium, dressing that violence up in HR-friendly euphemisms the ecosystems we're poisoning couldn't care less about.
Hamaguchi drops us into the disputed region on our backs, the camera dollying through a quiet forest in the Mizubiki Village while pointed up at the tree branches that break up the otherwise endless sky. That survey is interrupted--first through an uneasy offscreen audio cue and then through an abrupt edit--by the low-key presence in the environment of local jack-of-all-trades Takumi (Hitoshi Omika) and his adolescent daughter, Hana (Ryo Nishikawa), who frequently goes on unsupervised strolls through the woods that have become soured of late due to the presence of ungracious visitors who start bonfires and hunt for sport, leaving buck-shot deer on the defensive. A long, slow tableau of his wood-chopping tells us that Takumi is a minimalist presence in this world, gathering the modest resources his family needs and harvesting spring water and herbs for the local noodle chef, who left the city due to the encroaching effects of pollution on her product. (Bad water, she says, means bad soba.) Though Takumi is quick to note that the villagers' own presence on the land doesn't have the longest history, either, their largely sustainable existence there is threatened when a town meeting is called by a Tokyo-based developer named Playmode, who fecklessly use representatives from a film talent agency to inform the locals about the impending construction of a massive recreational retreat that will leach sewage into their water and bring even more disruptive interlopers, with barely any staff to monitor them. The locals push back, and the narrative perspective shifts to the benignly friendly agents, Takahashi (Ryuji Kosaka) and Mayuzumi (Ayaka Shibutani), who regroup in the car for a second trip to the village in hopes of winning Takumi over with the promise of making him the site's groundskeeper.
Despite the disorienting opening, which takes place well away from human voices, Hamaguchi's dramaturgical hallmarks are plain to see in the rambling, often funny town meeting, where the villagers resist the unprepared agents' dopey buzzword salad with concrete questions about where the septic tank will go, and why it's only big enough to accommodate a half-capacity attendance if the company's ethos is all about "optimizing" the space. There's a gentleness, too, to Hamaguchi's treatment of the agents, a pair of basically nice people in well over their heads. They have their own reservations about the company and their dead-end jobs, along with romantic notions about rural life that are mostly earnest.
But the persistent eeriness, owing in part to the score by composer Eiko Ishibashi (who shares a story concept credit and whose live musical piece with video accompaniment by Hamaguchi inspired the project) and Hamaguchi's abrasive frequent cuts away from it to silence, pays off in the violent denouement, whose apocalyptic tone and ambiguous character motivations will leave some baffled. Discordant as it might feel, the ending works as a reminder of the stakes of this seemingly benign corporate trespassing, as well as even Takumi's tentative relationship to the land. After ambiguously tiptoeing to the edge of genre storytelling throughout--signalled by the distant sound of the hunters' gunshots--the final moments firmly identify the film as a descendent of Hamaguchi's teacher Kiyoshi Kurosawa, while also recalling the macabre village thrillers of Na Hong-jin's The Wailing and, more faintly, Denis Côté's Curling. Evil Does Not Exist is a terse, powerful turn to what you might call the horror of the Anthropocene, where a poisoned natural landscape and its stewards reassert themselves with the blunt materials at hand. Programme: Special Presentations