Evil Does Not Exist is as compelling and impenetrable as its title. Japanese auteur Ryûsuke Hamaguchi’s follow-up to his international breakout hit, Drive My Car, is a slow, creeping thing — a small story that begins modestly and swells into something grand and ominous. (It took home two prizes at the Venice International Film Festival last year.)

The story follows Takumi (Hitoshi Omika), who serves his mountainous village as the local odd-job man. The camera watches intently as he chops wood cleanly and efficiently, adding the logs to a neat pile on the side of his alpine home. His young daughter, Hana (Ryô Nishikawa), sometimes tags along, naming the trees as they trudge through the forest. It’s not long before two representatives of a wealthy Tokyo businessman reveal their plans to build a “glamping” site on recently purchased land — a development that threatens to contaminate the town’s water supply. The townspeople are, to put it mildly, concerned. It’s wonderful how the word “glamping” is used repeatedly and contemptuously.

What seems to be a setup for a familiar battle between corporate greed and the salt of the earth takes an unusual turn when the narrative shifts our attention from Takumi to the two public relations representatives, who turn out to be reasonably humble, patient, and kind. One of them, Takahashi (Ryuji Kosaka), is a 40-ish talent agent with marriage goals, trying to keep his head above water in an industry he no longer cares for. The other, Mayuzumi (Ayaka Shibutani), is sensitive and respectful, and apparently not thrilled about her assignment to convince the townsfolk that building a septic tank on their mountaintop is a win-win situation.

A third-act twist, in which Hana suddenly goes missing, gives rise to a tense search and shocking conclusion. This dramatic shift ratchets up the suspense, and leads to an ending that seems predestined to become a scissor issue: half the audience will respect it and half will despise it. Without giving too much away, the metaphor of a gut-shot deer is the key to apprehending the film’s overarching theme.

Originally conceived as a wordless short film to accompany a live performance by composer Eiko Ishibashi, Evil Does Not Exist blossomed into a feature film in which Ishibashi’s score is prominently featured. The opening scene is a bravura tracking shot that moves eerily through the woods, looking straight up at the sky as branches pass through the foreground, middle ground, and background. The overall effect is like taking a tram ride through a forest while lying flat on your back. Ishibashi’s strings seem to envelop the picture, guiding our emotions as surely as Hamaguchi’s crystalline imagery guides our eyes.

Following Happy Hour (317 minutes) and Drive My Car (179 minutes), Evil Does Not Exist (106 minutes) feels like a slim short story compared to the fat, beach-read novels of the former two. It is nevertheless one of the most exciting and original films to emerge so far this year — a human-size thriller whose ecological message isn’t touted like a protest sign but is rather written into every shot and every note.  





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