I started off Sang-il Lee's oeuvre on a false note (not a fan of 69), but ever since that first film he's been redeeming himself. Every new Lee film I watch turns out better than the previous one and he's quickly working himself up to become a personal certainty. Rage [Ikari] is his latest feature, a thematic companion to Villain, but executed with more style and panache. It's a bold film that might rub some people the wrong way, but I watched those 142 minutes fly by, which is a rare feat in itself.
Villain was a film that combined drama and thriller elements to build up a strong central character, Rage takes a slightly different approach. Rather than focus on the story of the killer, Lee builds up three unrelated plotlines, with a fourth one detailing a gruesome murder. It makes for a somewhat slower start where the audience is left to decypher how everything might be connected, but it's a structure that pays off in the end, with both the whodunit aspect of the story as well as the dramatic impact hitting high notes.
What sets this film apart from countless others is the mix of classic island drama and thriller elements. The styling of Rage is a meticulous copy of the Japanese island drama (and not a very shabby one at that), but where those films tend to be quite chill and uneventful, Rage is a high-intensity thriller that doesn't pull any punches. I'm not sure if the surprise is as effective for people who aren't all that familiar with this very specific niche, but if you've seen a few (think Naoko Ogigami's Glasses or Ryuichi Hiroki's Locomotive Teacher) then the clash of universes is definitely tangible.
The stage is Okinawa, one of Japan's prettier areas, especially during the summer months. Three (unrelated) loners have left their old lives behind and are trying to settle in into their new surroundings. Things are slowly looking up for the three, but then the news breaks that there's a serial killer on the loose. Things get worse when the police releases a statement that the killer might have undergone cosmetic surgery since they first report the case. Suddenly the three become the center of suspicion, uprooting their new lives.
The visuals are extremely breezy and light, sporting beautiful scenery bathing in bright, powerful blues and greens. It's typical island drama material, going for that leasurely, downtempo atmosphere, but with a little extra visual push. The camera work is meticulous, the editing smooth and the film looks expensive from start to finish. Cinematographer Norimichi Kasamatsu (Electric Dragon 80.000V, Blue Spring) did an amazing job and reaffirms his talent.
The score is pretty high profile too. Composer Ryuichi Sakamoto was brought in to complement the visuals with a unique sound. While most of the film follows the expected aesthetic rather elegantly, the expressive thriller and drama elements are heightened by fierce but beautiful music. On top of that, Lee is also agressively mixing sounds and visuals from different storylines, often during the more dramatic moments of the film. A bold move, but one that works wonders, making the drama less obvious and adding a little depth through mystery.
With all the big drama, it's nice that Lee could count on a seasoned cast. With names like Aoi Miyazaki, Suzu Hirose, Ken'ichi Matsuyama and Satoshi Tsumabuki taking up key roles there's no lack of acting talent. Even Ken Watanabe redeems himself for his questionable Hollywood performances, showing his worth when his skill are put to good use. It's a superb cast, especially considering people like Go Ayano, Eri Fukatsu and Kirin Kiki are there to take care of the secondary characters.
While the first half may be a little puzzling, the film doesn't leave too much ground uncovered. During the second part all the loose ends are tied and each story gets its own dramatic finale. That may be a bit much for some as the film ends up having three separate endings that are just tangentially connected. That said, each ending is captivating and emotional in its own unique way, so it's not like you're watching three variations of the same thing. It's somewhat of a shaky balance, which I'm sure is going to divide audiences, but I feel Lee managed to give each plotline a fitting finish.
Rage sees Lee doing what he's good at. The combination of thriller elements with big drama is a tough trick to pull off, but Lee does it with such flair and conviction that it's difficult not to go along on the journey. The superb cast and impeccable styling ease you into the film while Lee's bold and contrasting touches keep you engaged throughout. Rage is without a doubt my favorite Lee film so far, though I feel that's still room for progression. Can't wait to see what he'll do next.