Review by Sean Boelman
Hot off the most critically-acclaimed film of his career in Drive My Car, Ryusuke Hamaguchi surprised the world with the announcement that his latest film, Evil Does Not Exist, would come out this year. While it’s not quite to the level of his best work, Evil Does Not Exist features many of the intriguing trademarks of the director’s style.
The film follows the inhabitants of a small village in Japan as their idyllic community is threatened by development when plans for a nearby glamping site are revealed. Hamaguchi tells the story from different perspectives — both the residents and the developers — telling this story in a way that is layered, if somewhat over-ambitious.
The pacing is very much a slow burn, building up to a final third that goes a little too out there for the rest of the film that preceded it. There’s a strange sense of humor to the entire affair — often at the expense of the absurd concept of glamping — keeping the film from being overly didactic in its approach.
On its surface, Evil Does Not Exist is a message movie, exploring environmentalist themes in a way that is much less subtle than Hamaguchi’s past work. However, when the film switches perspectives in the second half, it turns into a more nuanced look at conscience and complicity that challenges the viewers — just as the characters — to re-evaluate their role in standing by.
Like so many ensemble-driven movies this year, Evil Does Not Exist struggles with balancing its many characters in an effectively compelling way. Hamaguchi’s anthology film, Wheel of Fortune and Fantasy, arguably worked better thanks to its disconnected nature. In his attempt to tie together the narrative threads this time around, Hamaguchi leaves things feeling somewhat underdeveloped.
Interestingly, Hamaguchi primarily works with non-actors for his latest film — or at least performers with few screen credits (a handful also appeared in the director’s Happy Hour). This does lend the film a sense of naturalism that was clearly Hamaguchi’s intention. Hitoshi Omika, the film’s de facto lead who worked with Hamguchi in a behind-the-scenes capacity before, is arguably the stand-out, but the rest of the cast is also strong in their relative anonymity.
Of course, the film is excellent from a technical level, with great cinematography by Yoshio Kitagawa and a fantastic score by Eiko Ishibashi. Hamaguchi is essentially taking tropes that are known for being somewhat overwrought and turning them into something more restrained and elegant, and these wonderful technical aspects deserve a lot of the credit for that.
Evil Does Not Exist aims high with its ambitious approach to its themes, but its attempt to weave the narrative together intricately does not always work. Although it’s easy to admire what Hamaguchi was trying to do, it’s unable to quite reach the heights the filmmaker has achieved in the past.
Evil Does Not Exist screened at the 2023 Toronto International Film Festival, which ran September 7-17 in Toronto, Canada.