Asian movies

‘Evil Does Not Exist’ review: A chilling slow-burn about capitalist greed and climate violence

Ryan Oquiza

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‘Evil Does Not Exist’ review: A chilling slow-burn about capitalist greed and climate violence

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What makes Ryusuke Hamaguchi's latest film captivating is its ability to morph its 'corporate greed vs rural town' story into a suspenseful narrative, teasing an 'evil' that remains tantalizingly out of view

This is a spoiler-free review.

Ryusuke Hamaguchi is known for romantic dramas that toe the line between tragedy and comedy. So it’s a complete surprise finding out that his latest film, Evil Does Not Exist, is about a small Japanese town struck by the incursion of capitalist forces. Hamaguchi, whose 2021 film Drive My Car earned him Oscar nominations, has been celebrated for his ability to transform the most improbable moments between lovers and companions into riveting, cathartic experiences.

Wheel of Fortune and Fantasy is about the romantic trappings of three women and their battles against the cruelty of fate. Asako I & II follows the inner turmoil of a young woman faced with the challenge of being in love with two men who are indistinguishably alike. These films are funny, feature long dialogue as if they’re plays, and are also about our innate humanity and fragile emotions. 

The same can be said about Evil Does Not Exist, but what makes it truly captivating is its ability to morph its corporate greed vs rural town story into a suspenseful narrative, teasing an “evil” that remains tantalizingly out of view. This makes me giddy since Hamaguchi has recontextualized his style as a result. His penchant for long shots, typically used to show awkward moments, have now transformed into nail-biting sequences, akin to waiting for a bomb that slowly inches towards explosion. 

The thrill starts from the title itself: “Evil Does Not Exist.” But when shown in the title card, there is a knowing wink that something bad is probably going to happen. The film follows single parent Takumi and his daughter, Hana, who live deep in a forest surrounded by a tightly knit rural village. It’s winter, so most of the menial labor consists of chopping wood and carrying pristine well water. The mountains and lakes are indispensable, providing the townspeople with the means to sustain their small businesses and maintain the undisturbed harmony of the local ecosystem.

Trouble arrives in the form of a Tokyo company that secretly has insidious plans to profit off of the potential of the place to become a tourist spot. They propose to set up a glamping site, yet their projections come across as conspicuously inept and devoid of rational basis. Takumi and his neighbors are naturally livid, and two talent agents – who don’t even want to be there – bear the brunt of their wrath.

While the story carries the classic tale of greed and injustice, it’s uniquely situated in a post-pandemic Tokyo marked by a subsidy-driven environment. Hamaguchi weaves layers upon layers into his key characters, forging empathies that are completely unexpected. One of them is apparently active in dating apps, another reveals a genuinely pure heart, yet they are supposedly the people we are rooting against. This leaves a lot of room for hilarious moments and deeply relatable characters, but it also opens us up to the humanity that is often lost due to the coldness of corporate life.

In the world of capitalism, these intimate traits are suppressed, only revealed in private liaisons, hidden in favor of reducing any risk of losing profits. The employees know nothing about the rural community, and even when they attempt to connect, it is in the selfish interest of looking good for HR. This is proper patience from a writing and directing standpoint, a refusal to box characters into single-minded ideas. 

Hamaguchi also masterfully toys with our expectations. The music, elegantly composed by Eiko Ishibashi, initially appears revelatory, only to swiftly transform into a deliberate misdirection. It’s ominous in scenes of levity, quiet in moments of exploration. The framing and sudden cuts make it seem like the film nudges us into a heightened sense of awareness, but nothing happens; there is no “evil,” to use the film’s tagline.

I can’t name the number of times I leaned closer to the screen, just waiting for something to pop up, or if there is anything hidden in the frame that deserves attention. It reminded me of Michael Haneke’s Caché for its uncomfortable stable shots, as well as the atmospheric horror of Kiyoshi Kurosawa (who Hamaguchi is an avid fan of). The film’s disarming ambiance is significantly shaped by the backdrop of a frosty winter season, heightening our anticipation for any glimpse of crimson that will paint the white snow.

Furthermore, the film can be interpreted as a rebellion against climate-related violence, highlighting society’s tendency to downplay it compared to other forms of violence. Instances where deer and birds are disturbed from their natural habitats, frequently overlooked in the mostly anthropocentric language of filmmaking, are purposefully captured by the camera for extended durations to underscore this message. Erosion and degradation are themes that Evil Does Not Exist constantly revisits, themes that take on a particularly disconcerting tone when juxtaposed with the backdrop of a small, peaceful village.

Human flesh and the natural environment are consistently linked as a sort of symbiotic relationship. One of my favorite match cuts of the year relates to this idea. A bleeding hand harshly transitions into the image of a lake, underlining their intertwined experience of decay. This film deserves to be nominated for best editing simply because there are really some powerful cuts that say a million words despite nothing being worded out by its characters. Simplicity is Evil Does Not Exist’s strength. Hamaguchi has never been more effective without having to use his dialogue (which is arguably his greatest asset). 

This is exemplified best by its cryptic ending in which Hamguchi, playing with our expectations one last time, commits deception by way of cinematic editing. It’s shocking and direct. Narratively ambiguous yet emotionally straightforward. Heartbreaking but ultimately cathartic. It encapsulates repressed sentiments regarding economic agency, climate-driven turmoil, and the isolating effects of labor, all converged into a powerful shot that could pass as a painting. In this ending, Hamaguchi’s control of his craft reaches its zenith. A piece of storytelling that’ll persist in your mind long after you’ve finished watching it.

This film may not be like a sprawling, tragic epic like Drive My Car, nor is it as long and intimate as Happy Hour, but Evil Does Not Exist represents an evolution of the Japanese auteur’s filmmaking trajectory that is genuinely exciting and compelling. –

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Ryan Oquiza

Ryan Oquiza is a film critic for Rappler and has contributed articles to CNN Philippines Life, Washington City Paper, and PhilSTAR Life.