Evil Does Not Exist Review

This review is based on a screening at the 2023 Venice International Film Festival.

Aku wa sonzai shinai: A Review

Hamaguchi Ryusuke’s previous film, the Oscar-winning, Chekhov-inspired Drive My Car, featured lengthy scenes of intriguing dialogue, and protracted silences that were just as magnetic. These sort of still, reflective fixations on people make Hamaguchi one of modern cinema’s most engaging dramatists. With his latest, Aku wa sonzai shinai (or Evil Does Not Exist), he applies this M.O. to natural surroundings as well, often to mixed results. The movie eventually blooms into another of Hamaguchi’s riveting humanist dramas, but it takes some time to get there.

With one eye on the splendor of nature during extended opening credits, Hamaguchi introduces us to the snow-capped trees and frozen rivers of Mizubiki Village, two hours outside of Tokyo. Winter is nearing its end, and the stoic, jack-of-all-trades handyman Takumi (Omika Hitoshi) continues his daily tasks of collecting stream water for the town and chopping firewood. He’s so absorbed in these chores that he forgets to pick up his 8-year-old daughter Hana (Nishikawa Ryo) from school once again, but it’s no matter; the people of the village look out for each other, and she knows the forest trail home.

There’s a sense of community and calm to Mizubiki, though on occasion, Hamaguchi and cinematographer Kitagawa Yoshio shoot it with subtle deviations from cinematic norms, like framing that obscures characters behind trees and mounds as they walk, and a reduced shutter angle that causes jitters in the image (the kind usually reserved for action scenes) by reducing motion blur. The surroundings may be pristine, but something feels ominous, and off. Before long, a local talent company sends its agents to confer with the villagers on the construction of a fancy “glamping” site that would impact the local communities – a topic on which Takumi no doubt has a strong opinion – leading to the kind of extended scenes of discussion and spirited exchange at which Hamaguchi excels, revealing character through conversational rhythm.

Though it bides its time before getting here, once the movie’s focus shifts away from the rural environment, and towards the people living within it, a sense of bleak humor sets in. The poor villagers are rightly concerned about the adverse environmental effects they might face downstream from the extravagant site – a very literal form of trickle-down economics – and though the glamping envoys hear out these concerns, they don’t quite listen. As amusing as it may be to see obvious holes poked in their blueprints, there’s also an undercurrent of helplessness to the locals’ objections, as if this is a battle they’ve already lost.

But before the film hurtles towards this eventuality, it bides its time by focusing on the agents themselves, as cogs in a larger machine stationed in Tokyo – people who are culpable, but not at fault. It’s a testament to the movie’s title (and ethical outlook) that it’s able to extend this approach to practically every character, no matter how deeply involved with the project they are. It’s also an optimistic outlook, though one that finds itself continuously challenged (thanks to the characters’ shifting sense of sincerity) when the envoys return to Mizubiki and seek Takumi’s help to learn about the region.

Evil Does Not Exist is a film about community, dignity, and what people owe each other, notions that are thrown into disarray when the ruthlessness of modern industry gets involved. And while its outstretched shots of nature aren’t nearly as inviting as Hamaguchi seems to hope – there’s an unevenness to them that feels uncharacteristic of his work – they’re a vital part of his dramatic tapestry. They establish the local villagers and their surroundings in the same breath, and as common targets of the very same forces that misunderstand them, even if they wish them no harm. In Hamaguchi’s purview, “evil” may not exist, but apathy certainly does, and given the end result, there may not be much of a difference.

If Evil Does Not Exist feels, at times, like a project in a state of limbo – like its scenes of nature belong to a different aesthetic realm entirely, even though they hold narrative importance – that’s because it’s sort of a spin-off of a separate production. Hamaguchi initially conceived of the film as a wordless 30-minute short titled Gift, which is set to premiere at Belgium’s Film Festival Ghent in October, but he expanded on his footage with additional dialogue scenes in order to carve out Evil Does Not Exist.

It is perhaps, for this reason, that the scenes of lengthy exchanges play like the movie’s core point, leaving so many of its transitional shots of nature feeling perfunctory. However, hints of what will likely be featured in Gift also imply an equally powerful alternate version given how well they work here. While Hamaguchi’s eye for the fluidity of environments yields little by way of poetry or texture, his silent observations of human diligence are just as riveting as his scenes of group discussions.

Nature alone isn’t interesting when filtered through Hamaguchi’s dramatic lens. But when his characters commune with nature, even in silence, the result is often haunting and stirring.