“Love Will Tear Us Apart” Review: Lee Sang-il’s “Villain”

One of my favorite recent Japanese films is the complex crime drama/lovers-on-the-run story Villain, screening as part of Japan Society’s film series “Love Will Tear Us Apart.”  Below is what I wrote on this film when it screened at the 2010 Busan International Film Festival.

The finest film to date from Japanese-Korean director Lee Sang-il (69, Scrap Heaven, Hula Girls) is this tale of murder (based on a novel by Shuichi Yoshida, who also penned the screenplay) rendered in complex shades of gray.  Villain gains its tremendous power from both its excellent performances (not only by the leads Satoshi Tsumabuki and Eri Fukatsu, but the stellar supporting cast), and its intriguingly ambiguous scenario, which challenges easy moral and character judgments.  The “villain” of the title would at first appear to be Yuichi (Tsumabuki), who commits murder during one terrible night in a fit of rage.  But as the circumstances of the night are slowly teased out during the course of the film, and the context surrounding the murder is gradually revealed, we come to learn than Yuichiisn’t the only one worthy of being tagged with that titular appellation.  Two other possible candidates are the flighty, superficial Yoshino (Hikari Mitsushima), whom Yuichi pines for initially, but who herself pursues the rich playboy Masuo (Masaki Okada), who is contemptuous of anyone he considers beneath his station.  All three of them figure into the murder at the center of the story.  Yuichi is eventually forced to go on the lam, where he encounters Mitsuyo (Fukatsu), a shy and lonely woman who impulsively joins this fugitive, determined at all costs to see the goodness that exists at Yuichi’s core, convinced that his act of murder is not in his nature, but forced upon him by circumstance.  The film itself appears to endorse Mitsuyo’s point of view, until an occurrence very close to the end seems to turn that completely on its head. Lee Sang-il throughout demonstrates an assured, compelling command of visuals and narrative flow, staging the chaotic maelstrom of events with a masterful hand.  Fukatsu won a well-deserved best-actress prize at the Montreal World Festival; her performance is extraordinary, and her role proves to be the film’s most crucial one.

Villain screens at Japan Society on March 9 at 7:30.