When Third Window Films acquires a film, it's time to sit up and take notice. This past year they've been scouting the best of Japanese cinema, so when they revealed their newest acquisition I was pretty excited to see how Sang-Il Lee's latest film would fare. Even though the setup of Villain (or Akunin, if you want to stick with the Japanese name) sounds like a pretty standard Japanese drama, there is a lot more going on underneath the hood.
Sang-Il Lee keeps jumping back and forth between comedy and drama in his oeuvre. Nothing out of the ordinary you might say, but there's a really big gap between his fluffy comedies and his edgy dramatic works. When I first watched 69 I was ready to ignore Lee's others films, but Scrap Heaven restored my faith in his talent. Villain ties in with his dramatic side, leaving all the teen comedy follies behind and focusing on more subtle and deeper human emotions.
Even though this film won quite a few prizes in Japan (5 Japanese Academy Awards), it hasn't been doing all that well oversees. Not that I believe the film deserves the poor attention, but I can somehow understand why Western (festival) audiences aren't really lining up to watch this film. The first hour is a tad bland, has a hard time distinguishing itself from its peers and feels a little aimless at times. But stick with Lee's intentions and you'll be more than compensated throughout the second part of the film.
The first hour we get an ill-disguised whodunit focusing on the murder of a young girl. There are two likely suspects but Lee never goes to the trouble to add any layer of ambiguity there. It's pretty obvious who the real culprit is, then again Lee takes his time to unravel all the events so you start pondering about the point he's trying to make. It also makes you wonder how he's going to fill the remaining 80 minutes and where the film will go once the puzzle is complete. No worries though, Lee has it all worked out.
Villain looks nice enough, but it's hard to contest that the current Japanese releases aren't as visually distinct as they were a couple of years ago. The film features decent camera work, some nice shots from time to time, but nothing overwhelming or really outstanding. The pacing is not as slow as it used to be and overall there just aren't as many visual impressions that remain after the credits start to roll.
The soundtrack is not all that spectacular either, though very fitting and still quite atmospheric. Good, solid piano music with a few edgy frills to underline the thriller aspect of Villain. It's safe to say that the audiovisual experience of this film is made to fit the themes and story rather than to dominate and steer the atmosphere.
As for the acting, nothing but praise. Eri Fukatsu has a tough role to play and does so with great conviction, but it's Satoshi Tsumabuki that really blew me away. His character is almost impenetrable but at the same time he's the center of the dramatic complications, so in the end it all comes back to his performance and his ability to transfer the dualities of his character to the audience. It's one of the strongest roles I've seen in quite a while. The supporting cast is nothing but perfect either, though their impact is not as dominant as that of the two main actors.
Once the whole whodunit story is cleared, the second part starts to erase any clearcut impressions and feelings you might have developed for the characters up until that point. Even though their former actions remain, the "good guys" are slowly turning black, while the "bad guys" are slowly gaining the viewer's trust and appreciation. Lee repaints the whole setting and blurs the boundaries of good and evil, aptly illustrating that criminal behavior is not necessarily a logical result of a person's self, just as much as lack of criminal behavior doesn't necessarily make you a good person.
The second half of the film holds the key to the success of this film. While Lee reveals his true intentions, the audience is brought to a state of utter emotional confusion. It's funny to see how the first part of Villain features a fuzzy script with clear emotions, which is then reversed to a clear script with fuzzy emotions. The climax is all the more powerful because of that, leaving you with a mixed bag of feelings and some nice bits to contemplate about afterwards.
Overall Villain is a strong film with a clear goal in mind. Know that you need to get through the first hour, trusting Lee that the second half will be much richer and better. Lee could've payed a bit more attention to the audiovisual side, which is decent but a little underdeveloped, but overall Villain is a strong and powerful film that messes with the viewer's emotional state in a very sneaky way. Recommended watching.