Courtesy of Neopa/Fictive
In 2021, Hamaguchi Ryusuke won truckloads of awards and near-universal critical acclaim for his three-hour drama “Drive My Car,” including three Cannes awards and a Best Picture Oscar nomination, a first for a Japanese film. (That Oscar went elsewhere, but “Drive My Car” was named best international feature film.)
Instead of trying to top that triumph with a bigger budget and more international names in the cast, Hamaguchi returned to his indie roots with “Evil Does Not Exist,” which premieres in competition at this year’s Venice Film Festival.
The film began as a collaboration with singer-songwriter Ishibashi Eiko, who scored ‘Drive My Car’, to provide a visual backdrop for her live performances. But instead of a music video, Hamaguchi made a 106-minute film with a slow story about two representatives of a Tokyo talent agency who try to sell skeptical locals on a spectacular location for city dwellers who want to camp in its pristine mountains.
Hamaguchi has also completed another film, “Gift,” with similar visuals but no dialogue that will premiere at Film Fest Ghent in Belgium in October and will accompany Ishibashi in her concerts.
Talking to me Variety in Tokyo shortly before his departure for Venice, Hamaguchi says that after signing the project he concluded that “I couldn’t make something like a music video if I didn’t direct it as a narrative film first, as I usually do. . … We also decided to make a concert film out of the footage of the narrative film.”
This unusual conception (“I worked with a different mindset than usual,” says Hamaguchi) stemmed from his belief that he needed scripted dialogue “to bring the actors to life.”
“If the film didn’t properly express their vitality, Ishibashi’s music wouldn’t be as wonderful as it could be,” he explains.
The title, he says, came to him when he was in the mountains of Nagano Prefecture, north of Tokyo, scouting locations. “These words came to me naturally and spontaneously as I looked at the nature around me,” he says. “I wasn’t thinking about what kind of reaction they would get from the public. I guess I gave the film a title like you would a piece of music.”
However, the title reflects the story in which the two representatives – a man and a woman with little knowledge of the project they are supposed to promote – are quickly and brutally confronted by the locals, who want to protect their land and lives from destructive development. This confrontation, however, is not framed as a simplistic battle between good and evil.
“They’re from the city, so I saw them as probably being closer to the public (than the locals),” says Hamaguchi. “Also, I’m not local to the area where I shot — I live near Tokyo. So I wanted to create a structure in which we can understand more about (the iterations) and the reasons for their behavior. I wanted them to have a rounded presence.”
The story is loosely based on a true incident involving a modeling agency that Hamaguchi heard about while doing interviews in Nagano. “They were trying to build an outdoor facility, but because the design was so sketchy, they got slaughtered in the briefing,” he says. “I thought it was a very modern story with similarities to a lot of problems in today’s world.”
Also, the locals are not the usual rural types seen in Japanese movies, with their strictly conservative attitudes and deep ancestral roots in the land. “They live in a relatively new area with much less history than some of the mountainous regions of Japan,” explains Hamaguchi.
The film was shot in such an area, he adds: “It’s only a two-hour drive from Tokyo, so it’s easy for young people to live there and there’s a climate that accepts such people. So we tried to reflect the real feel of the land.”
Even so, the film exudes an air of mystery and, underscored by Ishibashi’s pulsating score, undefined menace. Neither is carefully explained by credit detection. “It’s not the kind of film where the audience asks questions and the director answers them,” says Hamaguchi. “But I hope the questions will stay with the public for a long time.”
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