Eastern Premise #49 – Villain

This week Jason Julier turns his attention to his most contemporary work in quite some time, Lee Sang-il’s Villain

2011 was an eventful year for Third Window Films with releases including Confessions of a Dog, Cold Fish and Confessions. The London riots may have threatened the future of this enterprising DVD label but it is bouncing back stronger than ever before with the release of Lee Sang-il’s Villain, a film which received 15 Japanese Academy Award nominations, winning most of the major categories. For once, such a multiple award winner is a worthy recipient.

I have been somewhat disappointed with several releases this year including Underwater Love from Third Window and Eureka’s release of Sion Sono’s Guilty of Romance. Even Sono’s Cold Fish never scaled the heights of Love Exposure or his earlier work, despite its positive reception generally. In many ways, Villain is the film that both aspired to be and thankfully Lee Sang-il resists the temptation to infuse Shuichi Yoshida’s novel with copious amounts of violence, sex and gore in the name of entertainment. What we have instead is a film that captures the ramifications of a life-changing event for all involved and the social burdens of society and its preconceptions.

The supposed villain of the piece is Yuichi Shimizu, a labourer on a construction site who has been brought up by his grandparents. Lacking social skills and any integration into society he lives out his day by working and helping the elderly in the remote fishing village where he has grown up. He relies on his uncle for employment and Yuichi’s only means of escape is at night when he climbs into his car and leaves all his troubles behind.

Things however do catch up with you eventually one day no matter where you run. For Yuichi it seems he has been trying to find that special someone via an online dating website.  The initial object of his affection is the charismatic and manipulative Yoshino Ishibashi, an insurance saleswoman who uses her charms to get what she wants. Yoshino’s parents are of modest origins and she has set her sights on a wealthy student Keigo Masuo, whose parents own a famous local inn. Money is no object for Keigo, who regards the attractive Yoshino as little more than an brief distraction. For all we know Yoshino might be Yuichi’s first experience of female company, and she uses this naivety to extort money from the labourer in exchange for company and sex.

This twisted relationship ultimately results in the death of Yoshino with Keigo suspected of her murder. While he is on the run, Yuichi being the actual murderer is left to digest his actions. The film plays with our conceptions of what a killer should actually be. Yuichi is unquestionably a solitary, withdrawn individual but clearly one capable of kindness and generosity. There are hints about his background and upbringing, how he came to be raised by his grandparents and his motivations. Only when he meets Mitsuyo Magome via the same dating site does he finally understand love and what a relationship can offer.

Mitsuyo is a lonely shop worker who has lived all of her life as she sadly admits on the same road, whether it is education or employment she has never left the confines of her street. Living with her sister she attempts to find a boyfriend via the online site and has an uncomfortable first date with Yuichi. This encounter should be the end of any potential romance; particularly when the inept Yuichi thinks paying for sex is required. Yet somehow these two lost souls find common ground and a purpose together before fleeing the ensuing manhunt.

Villain also depicts the impact of the unfolding events on Yuichi’s grandmother and the parents of Yoshino. These characters are bolstered by two memorable performances that almost match that of Eri Fukatsu in the role of Mitsuyo, who is utterly sensational. Yoshino’s grieving father Akira vents his anger at despicable Keigo, who is aloof and unrepentant about his actions; much to the dismay of one of his friends. Keigo did play an important part in the events of that fateful evening and while he does not have any blood on his hands, some of the guilt must rest with him.

South Korean director Lee Sang-il has already confirmed his talent with films including ‘Hula Girls’, and he really plays with the audience conceptions during the course of Villain. Keigo could be seen as the real monster of the piece, as Yuichi seems generally repentant and incapable of a normal existence in society. Overall the film is a triumph and may have benefited with a shorter closing segment as we reach the dramatic conclusion of the storyline. Techniques worth highlighting are the moments in the film where there is no dialogue or the direction of a soundtrack. These exposed sections permit a closer bond with the characters and the environment, delivering a sense of realism and despair with their predicament. Yuichi confides in Mitsuyo that ‘if you face the sea every day, it feels like you’ve reached a dead end’. For this sad individual we’re left with questions about why his life turned out as it did and how devastating it must be to find true love and happiness, knowing that it is doomed by previous events.  

The DVD also comes with an informative hour long ‘making of’ documentary and a selection of interviews. Villain comes highly recommended and is one of my favourite DVD releases of 2011 and marks an impressive year from Third Window Films.

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