It would be improper to review Villain (Akunin), the award-winning Japanese drama which is getting a limited UK release this week, without acknowledging recent developments regarding its distributor, Third Window Films. As part of the recent rioting that has flared up across the country, Sony’s main DADC warehouse in Enfield was subject to an arson attack, resulting in many independent labels (both music and film) losing vast numbers of their stock.
Third Window, who have garnered a reputation for releasing esoteric, quirky, or just flat-out brilliant East Asian films, is one of the many businesses that now find themselves in an unfortunate spot. In their particular case, almost 20,000 DVD discs have been written off, and to replenish the whole catalogue would be a great investment.
A setback like this could be fatal. For these companies, the home entertainment market is their main source of income, providing much of the capital used to acquire, exhibit and promote new films. Theatrical releases themselves are more about getting the word out, working as a loss leader that only starts to pay off once the DVDs roll out later on, and interest has had a chance to gather.
This brings us to Villain. While it may not be the strongest, or most audacious entry in the Third Window catalogue, it is nonetheless another fine, if flawed addition. Adapted from the novel by Shuichi Yoshida, the film was a tremendous critical success in Japan, scoring 15 academy award nominations (winning five), and topping the film of the year list in influential film mag Kinema Junpo.
Holdovers from the film’s source text are apparent throughout, particularly in the use of symbolic touchstones, seen early in lead character Yuichi’s (Satoshi Tsumabuki) choice of a flashy, white sports car, in which he cannons through the night, escaping the drudgery of his daytime construction job. Later, he and his lover, young clothing store assistant Mitsuyo (Eri Fukatsu), abandon society to shack up in a lighthouse, seemingly perched on the edge of the world.
But what are they running from? Modern life itself, it seems, as even though their relationship is birthed by it (they meet through an online dating site), the lovers are tired of the loneliness, despondency and cynicism of metropolitan romance. However, things are never so simple, as their future is marked by the past – as Yuichi is racked by guilt for murdering another girl he met online. More pressingly, the police have sniffed out his trail, and are close behind.
Director Lee Sang-Il, who also co-wrote the screenplay with Yoshida, retains a novelistic feel, inheriting the gentle, relaxed pacing of a 300 pager, and adopting a grand scope, which shifts from police procedural to psychological examination, to quite unassuming, yet moving scenes of tentative, confused romance – with the lilting strings of Joe Hisaishi’s score tying it all together.
The film often recalls the type of heavy, portentous ensemble drama peddled by Alejandro González Iñárritu, as the gaze flits from the two protagonists to other narrative strands, involving Yuichi’s family, the parents of his victim, or the pompous city boy who also courted her. The characters all explore the gap between optimism and social reality, something best seen in the devastating subplot where Yuichi’s grandmother (Kirin Kiki), is bullied and exploited by a conman, stripping her of her life savings just as she is mobbed by journalists, who are more interested in getting the scoop on her grandson’s whereabouts.
Less convincing is the didactic moment where the bereaved father, tortured by grief and bent on revenge, lets loose a moralistic rant, schooling a bunch of boozing youths about responsibility, crowing, “In this day and age, too many folks have no one they care about.”
The two leads stand in opposition to this damning indictment, but they are stuck between sentimentality and action. They love each other, because they make the commitment to run away, and share in the guilt, together. And Yuichi, if we take him at his word, expresses deep regret, and swears that the murder was an accident – so why shouldn’t he be allowed to enjoy this new love?
The film, however, can’t fully communicate such conflict, with its anchored atmosphere of moody, sombre introspection unable to take flights of hope or naivety. As the narrative knots become tighter, the speeches grow longer, and the middle-distance stares come more frequently, its compelling, two-headed thesis – whether contemporary life has killed romance, and whether a murderer can exonerate himself through love – gets lost.
They are intriguing themes, nonetheless, it is just unfortunate that the audience is kept at a distance throughout. It’s doubly unfortunate, because not only does Villain have a lot going for it, it has a lot riding on it, as well.
Villain is out today. You can read more about Third Window Films here.