Once, when talking about Stanley Kubrick’s seminal Barry Lyndon, Martin Scorsese referred to the film’s “almost Japanese sense of time”. If one was to be cynical, one could snipe that it’s just a fancy way of saying a film is boring, but it goes to the point of how cinema makes the relativity of time visible and tangible to the audience.
Ryusuke Hamaguchi’s work often takes its own time in the best way possible, forcing your heart to slow, your pulse to settle, your concentration to focus before pulling you into the most compelling and rich of stories. Following a slightly Godardian title card, Hamaguchi’s latest film Evil Does Not Exist begins with a scene of a man cutting wood. First, he chainsaws the branch; then he splits the big logs; chopping them again into stove-ready slivers, before picking them all up and wheelbarrowing them over to stack at the side of his house. Watching the most ordinary tasks, the mind begins to see a story emerge.
Takumi the woodsman (Hitoshi Omika, previously Hamaguchi’s AD), collects water from a spring for his friend Kazuo’s (Hiroyuki Miura) restaurant, where it makes the noodles taste special. He is an opaque, enigmatic figure, something like the film itself. He thumps the top of his head when he forgets – as he often does -that he also must pick up his daughter Hana (Ryo Nishikawa) from school. Takumi knows where Hana cuts through the woods though and in a wonderful tracking shot, we lose sight of him only for him to reappear from behind the trees in the unbroken tracking shot with his daughter on his shoulders. It’s a moment of genuine surprise. Almost as if Jean-Luc Godard’s famous tracking shot from Weekend reassembled the crashed cars and healed the torn bodies.
Not all is well in Mizubiki village, the small woodland escape close to Tokyo where Hana and Takumi live. The sound of hunter’s shots can be heard in the distance; the stripped corpse of a fawn lies in the underbrush and there are thorns which will scratch and tear. Far worse is the danger presented by a proposed glamping site which is being pushed by a dodgy business that are in it mainly for the covid subsidies. During a village meeting, a PR firm presents the project, which the villagers pick apart with a meticulous and practical respect for the environment.
These are no raving xenophobes in Cristian Mungiu’s R.M.N. In fact, it’s bracingly refreshing to see a community portrayed positively for once, carving through the waffle about progress and business opportunities and returning to the placement and capacity of the septic tank and the fate of the deer that live in the woods. The villagers aren’t necessarily completely opposed to the glamping site – in fact one of them points out they’re all outsiders in the end – but they are suspicious of the company’s cost-cutting and lack of foresight.
Throughout, Hamaguchi and his cinematographer Eiko Ishibashi keep us off kilter. An apparently still shot judders and moves, with a car as it reverses. A lush movement of music by Ishibashi cuts out abruptly with the cut. This happens with the story as well as Hamaguchi shifts to the employees of the company. These too are human beings and maybe there is something about this community that brings out the sleeping individual in the city workhorses. But Hamaguchi is no believer in fairy tales. For him the woods retain a darkness, a danger, and a mystery. The environmentalism is pragmatic. The earth is cold and wintery, a huge pile of manure steams in the winter sun.
Anything that enters the water upstream will affect those downstream sooner or later. The same goes for story. It’s a Chekhovian ecology. Forgetfulness and gunshots, thorns and iced over ponds. Sooner or later, everything is going to end up downstream. The final few minutes will baffle some, infuriate others, but it will also be the wildness of the imagination which will have you pondering Evil Does Not Exist long after it has ended.
The 80th Venice Film Festival takes place from 30 August-9 September.
John Bleasdale | @drjonty