Villain – Review

by Miguel Douglas


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Raised by his grandparents, loner Yuichi Shimizu is a young man working as a civil employee in a decaying fishing village in Nagasaki. One day, Yuichi meets Yoshino Ishibashi through an online dating site and the two become very close. When Yoshino unexpectedly decides to end their relationship, Yuichi tragically murders Yoshino, but not all is what it seems. As a rich young university student named Keigo Masuo ends up as the prime suspect, Yuichi know it’s only a matter of time until he eventually name the culprit of the crime. His destiny changes when he meets another woman by the name of Mitsuyo Magome and slowly begins to fall in love with her—with the police steadily closing in on him.

Korean-Japanese director Sang-il Lee has directed some pretty impressive films within the last decade. Whether it’s Border Line (2003), a film dealing with a dysfunctional family; 69 (2004), a film dealing with rebellious students in Japan during the 1960’s; or Scrap Heaven (2005), a film dealing with individuals considered outcasts within society, Lee has always been one to elaborate the social pariahs within his films, usually resulted in comedic effect. This even includes his award-winning Hula Girls (2006), a film that dealt with how a small mining town turned to Hula dancing to support their community from collapsing economically. But while his previous films have all been centered alongside the realm of social minority groups usually facing odds outside the realm of their own understanding, Lee’s latest film Villain examines the individual and how society perceives the notion of evil and good intentions—and the disastrous actions that may follow them.

In particular, Villain attempts to explore the public interpretations that ultimately derive from attempting to understand the personal intentions of an individual. Since we can never really truly comprehend the personal intentions of others we have never met, we begin to try to rationalize what the person might have meant based upon their actions, in the case of the film, a devious murder. This can lead to widely differing views that may be even the complete opposite of what the individual may have truly intended, but since public judgment comes mostly stems the individual’s actions instead of their intent, one can see where the problems can arise. Villain vividly explores how this spiraling descent of misunderstanding can ultimately transform the individuals surrounding a tragic event to a disgustingly savage degree—including that of the perpetrator.

It’s this spin of public and individual judgment that lies at the heart of Villain. In essence, how do we ascribe the term “villain” to an individual if their intentions were good, but their execution of said intentions have gone totally awry? Perceiving Yuichi as the prime suspect is certainly easy given his loner status and awkwardness, but what the film slowly unveils is that while we may ascribe him the title of “villain” within the film, his murderous deeds are considerably less when we begin to examine the cruelty of the people that influenced his behavior. While he is labeled as a murderer, that are multiple instances that would classify other people besides Yuichi as the “villain” of the story, mainly because of the callous behavior they display that easily outweighs his deeds. This is certainly not an attempt to romanticize Yuichi’s position as a murderer, but it does expound upon the premise that people can be just as wicked in their words and subtle actions as the act of murder itself—and certainly being equally as cruel. The point that the film consistently raises is that these people can get away with such vicious behavior because they fit within a certain social class.

Through the public eye, Yuichi can be viewed as the stereotypical fall guy—an easy target given his social status and simplistic lifestyle. While his intentions may have been good, his actions inevitably speak louder to the public, so whatever he’s done good in the past is quickly ignored. What firstly functions as a murder mystery slowly begins to examine the notion of in how we understand the qualities of a good or bad individual. For Lee, this seems to be a very ambiguous area that doesn’t provide any easy answers, but he handles the subject with such attention as to not easily define the elements that constitute a good or bad individual. This in itself can lead to some crippling misunderstandings that, like the film amply addresses, can eventually make an individual succumb to the very stereotype they’re given by public reaction and observation. Lee leaves it up to the audience to decipher their own moral understanding concerning the behavior of these characters, transforming their personas as the film progresses.

Perhaps one of the most emotional elements of the film is the response from the family of the slain girl, played exceptionally well here by Yoshiko Miyazaki, Kirin Kiki and Akira Emoto. The damaging results that arise from them not knowing why Yoshino was murdered is conveyed in the most subtle but fervent displays of emotions, underlining just how confusing it must be to lose someone so tragically. This is especially viewed in the character played by Akira Emoto, who plays the role of Yoshino’s father. Attempting to investigate and find out the reason why his daughter was brutally murdered, Emoto plays the exceptional role of worrisome and righteous father with considerable ease. This extends out to other major roles as well, including the subtlety displayed by actor Satoshi Tsumabuki. In perhaps his darkest role yet, Satoshi effectively brings forth a performance that is as caring as it is menacing, showing the fragility of his character. This is a real departure from the roles Satoshi has played in the past, so it provides a nice change to see him portraying a character that considerably less comedic in tone and more humanly authentic.

This is where Villain truly maintains a sense of devastating irony that effectively unveils itself layer through layer upon in the film. While the first half of the film does indeed play out like a rather standard mystery concerning the murder of a young woman, Lee expertly showcases during its second half how our perceptions as an audience can not only deceive us, but also the characters within the film as well. And like the actions of Yuichi throughout the film, we never truly realize the devastating consequences until the moment they occur, easily manipulating the way we previously viewed the actions of the characters in the film. Like many of Lee’s previous film before it, Villain is yet again another fierce portrait of an individual on the outskirts of society, but Lee doesn’t want to easily dictate how we should perceive evil—he’s showing us that even society can’t ultimately judge that objectively.

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Author: Miguel Douglas

As an avid viewer of both Japanese animation and cinema for more than a decade now, Miguel is primarily concerned with establishing a critical look into both mediums as legitimate forms of artistic, cultural, and societal understanding. Never one to simply look at a film or series based solely on superficiality, Miguel has dedicated himself towards bringing awareness to Asian entertainment and its various facets.

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  • Shaz

    Excellent review of an excellent film! This is also great as a book adaptation. The budding screenwriters can take lessons.

  • Miguel Douglas

    Thanks for the comment Shaz!

  • Tate

    Hi, I totally agree!! “Excellent review of an excellent film! This is also great as a book adaptation. The budding screenwriters can take lessons.” I don’t nomally watch crime movies but this movie was just awesome! I’ve been reading awful reviews about this movie and I am so glad that I’ve come across this wonderful review!! I just love the last scene, that just says it all.