As part of our coverage of the 42nd Vancouver International Film Festival, Meg Shields reviews Ryûsuke Hamaguchi’s eco drama ‘Evil Does Not Exist.’ Follow along with more coverage in our Vancouver International Film Festival archives.
Takumi (Hitoshi Omika) lives with his eight-year-old daughter Hana (Ryo Nishikawa) in the fictional Japanese village of Harasawa. Their small rural community is tranquil and serene, surrounded by woodland interspersed with babbling brooks, lightly trod game trails, and birdsong. The businesses are local. Everyone knows each other by name. And the community’s relationship with their surroundings is methodical and considerate. It was only a matter of time before a corporate outsider found a way to exploit it.
Driven to fulfill their part of a government subsidy, a developer from Tokyo plans to open a “glamping” resort in the heart of the rural community; a vacation destination where urbanites can visit the idyllic countryside without having to forego any modern amenities. The locals would be more incensed if they thought the company actually cared about their opinions … let alone their legitimate concerns about fire hazards, septic systems, and wildlife corridors. But it’s clear the company just wants to make a quick buck, ecological ramifications be damned.
The town hall organized by the developer is just a formality. And the fact that the representatives were merely going through the motions hurts much more than any overtly malicious mustache-twirling. All told: the project feels like a runaway train; uncaring, faceless, and inherently destructive. They’ve already clear-cut the construction site. How can something like this be moderated let alone halted in its tracks?
The term “slow-burn” gets tossed around somewhat recklessly these days. So it’s a real delight when a thoughtful filmmaker like Ryûsuke Hamaguchi earnestly uses a more languid pace to make a broader point. Indeed, the patience on display in Evil Does Not Exist is both an invitation and a challenge. A way of life is being poisoned. And to underpin why that matters, Hamaguchi forces you to sit with and appreciate that slowness firsthand: drifting slowly under snow-capped pine trees; collecting fresh spring water for the local udon shop; and methodically chopping kindling. These scenes may be low-key but the stakes are existential … and not just for the village of Harasawa. Even if you don’t live in a bucolic rural paradise, you’re no doubt familiar with humanity’s well-honed ability to unthinkingly colonize and disfigure precious natural beauty. We’re really good at it.
On paper, it’s easy to dismiss Evil Does Not Exist as yet another eco-drama about a tight-knit community rallying against an evil, capitalistic intruder. But what Hamaguchi is up to is far more interesting. At its midway point, the writer-director invites us to spend time and empathize with the company’s representatives. It’s a humanizing gesture that compounds the film’s larger argument about the banal ways humanity falls into destructive patterns; how we unthinkingly become complicit in systems that perpetuate harm on our environment, traditions, and neighbors.
I’ve seen other critics remark that the film’s ending fails to stick the landing. Or, alternatively, that its pivot to reactionary violence feels out of place after such a calm, often humorous, tone. Personally, I found that the tragedy that punctuates Evil Does Not Exist to be achingly well-telegraphed. So much so that, when the inevitable finally does happen, the impact leans more towards solemnity than shock, which I have to assume was Hamaguchi’s intent.
A sorrowful outburst of violence feels more appropriate than some saintly gesture of forgiveness or a forced happily-ever-after. It’s a limp-fisted gut punch, to be sure, but it’s in keeping with the film’s thesis that urban callousness is a slow-acting toxin that must be expunged from our earth’s system if anything is to survive.
I’m sure that the lack of closure in the film’s final third will leave a bitter taste in some audiences’ mouths. Which is, it must be said, by design. We don’t live in a world where local communities can count on empathetic intervention to thwart encroaching corporate interests. And we don’t live in a world where capitalist expansion can exist without exploitation and harm, however unintended. Our ability to live harmoniously with the natural world is only becoming more and more untenable. These are mundanely upsetting facts, and Hamaguchi presents them as such. If that bums you out, don’t worry. You’re on the right track.
As of the publishing of this review, North American distribution has been secured but no release date has been set.