Of all the great filmmakers to come out of the 21st century, few have been as consistently fascinating and artistically daring as Ryusuke Hamaguchi. Starting out with a series of low-budget student films before moving on to documentaries and larger experimental pieces, Hamaguchi made his first big splash in the international film scene with “Happy Hour,” a sprawling yet intimate five-hour film about four women in their mid-30s, their lives upended by various series of personal struggles. His other work includes “Asako I & II,” an eerie yet touching love story; “Wheel of Fortune and Fantasy,” an anthology of three short films dealing broadly with themes of love and loss; and finally his magnum opus, “Drive My Car.”
This year, Hamaguchi released “Evil Does Not Exist,” a film about a small community’s reaction to a Tokyo-based firm’s efforts to build a luxury glamping site on a nature preserve. “Evil Does Not Exist” won the Grand Jury Prize at the 80th Venice International Film Festival and the best film award at the British Film Institute London Film Festival. It’s a film that carries on much of what Hamaguchi has set out to explore in his past films while adding a more cutting satirical edge than is normally expected of his work.
It is also easily his most elusive film, posing questions that are not so easy to answer, alongside an ending that does little to help. What is left is a film that is hard to evaluate as a whole, as it seems impossible to fully encapsulate everything the movie sets out to do. “Evil Does Not Exist” is a strong work in Hamaguchi’s filmography, providing insight that few other directors can, but it is ultimately too inconsistent in execution to be considered among the absolute best of Hamaguchi’s projects.
Hamaguchi is particularly fascinated by humanity’s response to natural destruction — a theme throughout his filmography that has traditionally taken the form of the cultural memory of the 2011 Tōhoku earthquake. Through these disasters, Hamaguchi examines how the destruction of the natural world can be parallelled by the destruction of interpersonal relationships.
In “Evil Does Not Exist,” the destruction at play is not the result of natural phenomena but rather the potential of human greed. A large section of the film takes place at a local community meeting discussing plans for a proposed development. Two people from the firm sit at a panel in front of all the locals, fielding questions about placing a fence for deer, the location of a septic tank and preventing bonfires. It becomes clear that if the plan were to go through as presented, it would severely damage the natural landscape and contaminate the town’s water source. In turn, it would destroy the way of life of many of the locals who rely on the land to sustain themselves.
What is most poignant about this scene is the two presenters’ complete ignorance of the townspeople’s complaints. They seem to be providing the presentation merely for the optics and not because they would consider any actual change. Yet, that presentation winds up having a deeper effect on the two presenters than initially meets the eye. As they slowly become more accustomed to the rural way of living, they find something in it that they didn’t know to look for.
The film uses only amateur actors, a signature aspect of most of Hamaguchi’s work. This makes the film feel all the more real and lived in, completely transporting the viewer into the movie’s world. Unless you have watched “Happy Hour” — which features some of the same actors in their only other screen roles — the actors are complete strangers and thus can only be conceptualized as the characters in the film.
With all of the strengths the film brings, it ultimately fails to fully materialize in the end. There’s a clear issue that the movie sets to address — the gradual decline of natural landscapes at the hands of greedy corporations — but once that issue is addressed, the film doesn’t know how to end, instead just fizzling out. Though there seems to be something deeper lurking in the ending, it’s so hard to figure out, leaving viewers lingering in frustration.
Hamaguchi is undoubtedly a cinematic genius, and this film, despite its flaws, is a testament to that. Hamaguchi is a filmmaker constantly experimenting with the form of cinema and trying drastically new ways to explore his bag of themes — a commendable effort that by nature will not wind up with a perfect success rate. He should nonetheless continue to be celebrated as one of the great living directors, someone who always has something interesting to say, and an interesting way to say it.
Finn Kirkpatrick is an arts & culture editor. He is a junior from Los Angeles, California studying Comparative Literature who likes to review movies and other things of that sort.