Landing on British shores, garlanded with 5 Japanese Academy Awards (Best Actor, Best Actress, Best Supporting Actor, Best Supporting Actress, Best Music Score) and based on a cult novel by it’s screenwriter Shuichi Yoshida, Korean Japanese director Lee Sang-il’s film Villain is a glacial study of alienated loneliness in modern Japanese society played out against a soulless backdrop of flashy cars, internet dating and anonymous love hotels.
When office girl Yoshino (Hikari Mitsushima) is found strangled in a ditch, the police initially suspect rich, callous student Masuo (Masaki Okadi). However Yoshino was also seeing Yuichi (Satoshi Tsumabuki), a shy, sensitive poor boy whom she met through a dating website and used sexually and financially. As her father (Akira Emoto) struggles to cope with Yoshino’s death and Yuichi enters into a tentative relationship with lonely shopgirl Mitsuyo (Eri Fukatsu), the investigation’s focus shifts away from Masuo. Panicking, Yuichi goes on the run, Mitsuyo willingly following. But what really happened the night Yoshino died?
Thoughtful and slow-moving, Villain eschews the conventions of the crime drama to offer a broader portrait of a murder’s ripple effect. We’re never in too much doubt who killed Yoshino, the mystery aspect of the film is more a whydunnit? than a whodunnit? Villain is more concerned with the lives of the people the murder touches. We watch as Yoshino’s father falls apart, determines to take revenge, not on the killer but on the man whom he holds ultimately responsible for her death, Masuo, who beat her and abandoned her by the side of the road. We watch Masuo enjoy the dangerous glamour of being a murder suspect, dining out on the notoriety and boasting to his privileged circle of friends. We watch Mitsuyo fall passionately and dangerously for the damaged Yuichi, determined to redeem him through their doomed love. We watch the tortured, guilt-ridden Yuichi try to make sense of what has happened, as much a victim of the crime as the murdered Yoshino. We see how the shallow Yoshino contributed to her own death.
While Villain is beautifully shot, Lee’s direction is unflashy, unobtrusive, the stately, sedate pace allowing the actors the room to inhabit their roles. As Yuichi, Satoshi Tsumabuki, with his bleach-blond hair and moody emo attitude, is an ambiguous yet sympathetic protagonist; a still pond, turmoil churning beneath the surface. Hikari Mitsushima and Masaki Okadi are both excellent as the selfish Yoshino and brutal Masuo, crafting believable, relateable people from such shallow characters. As the grieving father, Akira Emoto is fantastic boiling with an impotent rage while Kirin Kiki as Yuichi’s devoted grandmother is heartbreaking, a woman simply bewildered by tragedy. The scene where she is hounded by journalists and must run the gauntlet of the aggressive media are more gruelling and terrifying than the murder scene. Deservedley winning the Best Actress award at the Montreal Film Festival as well as the Japanese Academy Award, Eri Fukatsu is raw and naked as the lonely Mitsuyo. Stuck in a life of quiet desperation, her almost concious decision to love Yuichi and see the best in him feels more like realistic acceptance than naivety.
Bleak, intense and tragic, Lee Sang-il’s slow-burning drama won’t be for everyone but, for those willing to take the time, Villain offers a haunting, restrained portrait of loneliness and isolation in post-industrial Japan.
Eri Fukatsu, Satoshi Tsumabuki, Hikari Mitsushima, Masaki Okadi, Akira Emoto, Kirin Kiki
Shuichi Yoshida from his novel