Film Review: “Evil Does Not Exist” — A Slow-Mo Eco Drama

By Gerald Peary

Ryusuke Hamaguchi’s latest film is consciously frozen paced to the point of parody.

Evil Does Not Exist. Directed and written by Ryusuke Hamaguchi. At the AMC Boston Common 19, Coolidge Corner Theatre, and Kendall Cinema.

Takumi (Hitoshi Omika) in a scene from Evil Does Not Exist. Photo: Sideshow/Janus Films

Do you want slow cinema? You’ve certainly got it with Ryusuke Hamaguchi’s Evil Does Not Exist, which is consciously frozen-paced to the point of parody. It opens with shots of windswept trees, then more windswept trees, then some title cards, then some more windswept trees, and even more windswept trees. After a bit more time, the camera comes down to earth and — no dialogue — finds a young girl in the forest, and more time and still no dialogue, lands on a man.

He’s Takumi (Hitoshi Omika), a local handyman who raises farm animals and excels in the natural world. We know this because there’s an extended scene in which we observe Takumi wielding an axe and chopping wood and splitting the logs every time. And another long scene in which he draws water from a creek and then carries his water jugs and places them in a car. Evil Does Not Exist speeds up a bit, maybe a shift to second gear, when we connect with Takumi and the girl in the forest. She’s Takumi’s daughter Hana. Takumi and Hana stroll through the woods and she identifies aloud many of the trees. For her education, her dad identifies the trees that she can’t name. Father and daughter are in eco-sync.

OK, that’s the character setup, and we gradually learn that this is an idyllic area of 6,000 people in rural Japan. It feels so safe there that Hana, unaccompanied, takes a path home from school through the dark woods. A woman has moved there from Tokyo to open a soba restaurant because the spring water does wonders when she boils her noodles.

Then suddenly: an old-fashioned social-consciousness conflict!

It seems an entrepreneurial company from the urban environs has decided this land would be the perfect spot for a “glamping” site: glamorous camping. They send a male-and-female team to hold a town assembly to persuade the locals that “glamping” would benefit them. Think how much money would come their way from outsider campers! Evil Does Not Exist slows down once again for an in-real-time meeting in which person after person in the audience raises objections to what’s being proposed. They see red flags, especially about a plan for a septic tank which would bring dangerous pollution. The company representatives are taken aback by the unanimous resistance. Polite middlemen with no decision-making power, they pledge to bring up everything mentioned here to their bosses.

Flash to a solo episode in a nameless city, company headquarters. Yes, evil does exist: the conniving young capitalists scheme to win over the gullible country folk without conceding anything important. (There’s no plan to deal with the septic tank problem.) The male-and-female team are sent back to the country for a second round of negotiations. And then the final deliberately paced scene: a long car ride in which the two confess that they are totally on the side of the villagers. In fact, the man is so turned off that he declares he wants to quit his city job and go to work in the village instead.

When the story of Evil Doesn’t Exist finally is squeezed out it’s a pretty simple eco-tale with decent intentions and obvious good-bad sides. But despite the artsy style, the narrative is missing the ambiguities and complexities of a high-level art-house movie. I concede that the “slow cinema” is sometimes poetic and mesmerizing; yet at other moments, it’s draggy and mundane. And how to justify the completely baffling and senseless spiritual ending? Head-scratching guaranteed.

Despite winning the Grand Prix at the Venice Film Festival, Evil Does Not Exist is a definite comedown from Hamaguchi’s two previous films, Asako 1 & 2 (my favorite) and the world-acclaimed Drive My Car. (Arts Fuse review) But no panic — it’s only one movie. I can confidently predict that the engaging director, only 48, will be back on track in the future. Hey, what’s not to admire about a filmmaker who says he’s most influenced by the Spanish masterpiece Victor Erice’s Spirit of the Beehive?

Gerald Peary is a Professor Emeritus at Suffolk University, Boston; ex-curator of the Boston University Cinematheque. A critic for the late Boston Phoenix, he is the author of nine books on cinema; writer-director of the documentaries For the Love of Movies: The Story of American Film Criticism and Archie’s Betty; and a featured actor in the 2013 independent narrative Computer Chess. His latest feature documentary, The Rabbi Goes West, co-directed by Amy Geller, has played at film festivals around the world. His latest book, Mavericks: Interviews with the World’s Iconoclast Filmmakers, has been published by the University Press of Kentucky.

Leave a Comment

Recent Posts