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New York Film Festival: Evil Does Not Exist (2023) Review

Academy Award-winning director Ryusuke Hamaguchi’s last film, Drive My Car (2021), was one of my favorite films of that year. So, when I heard the Japanese maestro’s newest movie won the Grand Jury Prize at the 80th Venice International Film Festival and would be showing at this year’s New York Film Festival, I was excited to say the least. Following a small rural village resisting the social and environmental damage brought by a company hoping to build a glamping site for city tourists, it’s a remarkably well-balanced offering that shows the Hamaguchi working with some interesting strengths. While I think it could have been more thematically cohesive, this watch was so compellingly disturbing in the best of ways.

One way Hamaguchi and Co. build this sense of unease is through the use of music. In this respect, Eiko Ishibashi’s composition deserves a lot of credit for building a ratcheting tension throughout this movie. Making really interesting use of dissonance, the soundscape of this film lets us know these events are building toward something, almost reflecting how corporate greed and people’s needs are opposed in an irreconcilable way. Combined with the use of a cold, harsh winter light and eerie camerawork such as overhead shots, everything about this film is made to let you know something’s wrong. I don’t mean to say that Hamaguchi’s being heavy-handed here; I actually love the strong sense of control he exhibits over tone. It’s impressive, especially considering all the restraint and care shown in the visuals. It’s also a very well-written piece of cinema.

Hamaguchi’s ability to mix and match tone creates room for a wonderful use of humor throughout, especially in a public forum that reveals just how little the corporate representatives know about the community they’re harming. Leaning into the absurdity of a system that lets companies place sewer pumps upriver or erect buildings in the middle of a deer trail, he makes us laugh then anxiously grip the armrests all in the span of a few minutes. The dialogue has a very organic feel to it, again showing just how precisely crafted every single element of this movie was. I do think the ending was a bit over the top, but perhaps that was the point. Regardless, there were definitely moments that dragged a bit, but I also appreciated the instinct to slow down the film, especially in scenes where Takumi’s working. I think these moments really grounded us in the daily motions of this small village, providing glimpses into the rich fabric of life woven by each of its citizens working together, a collectivity which proves useful in their fight against capitalist deregulation. This mostly strong writing is even better once it’s brought to life by a phenomenal cast.

I appreciated the straightforward approach in Hitoshi Omika’s portrayal of Takumi. He really captures the gruff yet thoughtful personality of this character, and does a great job of making us feel connected to his struggles. That being said, I think Ryuji Kosaka’s performance as Takahashi stole the film. Kosaka paints his character as a bumbling shill, desperate to connect with the community he hopes to exploit, yet being so out of touch he has no idea how to begin. Balancing desperation and stubbornness to hilarious effects, this character feels like the emotional glue of the movie, especially when paired with the anti-sidekick chemistry of his co-worker, Mayuzumi, who’s a lot more sympathetic to the townspeople’s cause.

This is a very poetic film. Hamaguchi seems less invested in conventional notions of plot than he does in posing questions to the audience, and leaving the answers up to us. While I think that works in some areas, it provides a lot of room for things to feel half-baked. I definitely think it’s a thought-provoking movie that deserves at least one viewing, but probably needs two before you can really sink your teeth into all it’s trying to say. Definitely keep an eye out for it! If you enjoyed this review, consider subscribing to the blog’s Patreon by clicking here! It helps pay the various fees that come with running a website, and keeps this blog ad-free and independent. There are also some cool benefits for those who choose to support the blog including: suggesting which movies I review, getting personalized movie recommendations, access to free giveaways and more! I'll be posting more thoughts from NYFF this week, so there's never been a better time to join!


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