‘Evil Does Not Exist’ Review: Hamaguchi’s Unsettling Eco-drama

City boy Takahashi watches a rural man, Takumi, chop wood. Taken by the elegance and simplicity of the repeated action, he earnestly asks if he might take a turn. Although he has come from the city to convince Takumi to abandon his principles and take a job managing a “glamping spot” that threatens the lifestyle of his own community, he asks seemingly without ulterior motive. After failing several times, he gratefully accepts advice from Takumi, successfully splits a log and discovers a satisfaction he hasn’t known in a long time.

There are universal themes in Ryusuke Hamaguchi’s engaging drama about gentrification and the wilful ignorance of neo-liberal capitalists, but he refuses to take any cheap shots. Evil does not exist. The maladies of our world are man-made and are driven by indifference and ignorance. The company stooges charged with consulting with the locals in a tokenistic effort to make it appear that they were consulted are doing so under orders. They are sent without power to deliver the words of fools chasing profits. Everybody is answerable to somebody; nobody is free.

Meanwhile, the community is portrayed idyllically. Hamaguchi’s lens valorises the simple routines of everyday rural Japanese life. This community offers a simple life where the day-to-day tasks of a societal caretaker include chopping wood, delivering supplies, and looking out for village children. Elders are respected, and children are free. Challenging assumptions or stereotypes about country folk is not the film’s point. They are, as yet, unspoiled. Their vulnerability to the senseless grind of capitalism is all the more heartbreaking for their savvy understanding of the intentions of these strangers.

Although a well-observed lamentation on the ubiquity of such irritations (I am devastated to find my spell-checker has no issues with the word “glamping”), the film does not despair. Because the faces of the soulless corporation are human, they are subject to reason and beauty. Although they lack any kind of understanding of this community we see the cracks form in their defences against the simple humanity of the people they’ve been sent to placate.

Hamaguchi finds a poetic form to fit such soulful aims. The film is slow paced, with many crucial sequences progressing unhurried to gradual dissipation. A central sequence sees Takahashi and Mayuzumi stage the supposed consultation with the locals. The sequence is long and painfully natural. After their slick presentation their ambitions are methodically torn apart by the locals who intuit the devastating effect this ill-conceived glamping spot shall have on their lives. Hamaguchi manages to avoid cynicism and sentimentality in portraying the horror of a world where evil does not exist but can be felt in the most mundane acts of cruelty.

Four Stars

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