Nature, nurture collide in ‘Evil Does Not Exist’

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The films of Ryusuke Hamaguchi unspool with elegant everyday ease and yet anything can happen. Lives take sudden detours. Seemingly minor characters become primary ones. People are brought together by mysterious connections. There are even, as in the case of his “Asako I & II,” doppelgangers. Soberly naturalistic as Hamaguchi’s movies are, they’re among the most beguilingly unpredictable. That was true of his Oscar-nominated “Drive My Car,” which over the course of three hours took winding narrative turns in route to its moving terminus. But it’s doubly so in Hamaguchi’s “Evil Does Not Exist,” a shorter and more enigmatic drama but a no less enchanting one.

The first images of “Evil Does Not Exist” are looking upward at tree branches against the sky while we move slowly through the forest. It’s a sign of what’s to come in a movie that asks plenty of questions about how we interact with nature, and Hamaguchi holds the shot several times longer than most filmmakers would. The gaze, if it’s anyone’s, is of Hana (Ryo Nishikawa), the 8-year-old daughter of Takumi (Hitoshi Omika), a self-described jack-of-all-trades (though he does little self-describing) who lives with Hana in a rustic cabin in rural Japan. The area is pristine, with fresh spring water running down mountain streams. And Takumi, like most of the local residents, is alert to its splendor. While he and Hana walk through lightly snow-covered woods, he quizzes her on the plant life. But something ominous is tugging at “Evil Does Not Exist” despite the assertive certainty of that title.

The score, by Eiko Ishibashi, is mournful. The father and daughter come across a dead fawn in the forest. A gunshot is heard from nearby hunters. Later, blood drips from a small branch. It’s maybe not a coincidence that the film’s opening images of trees are followed by a lengthy scene of wood chopping. Just what is fragile and wounded in “Evil Does Not Exist,” though, isn’t always clear. The serenity is snapped when a company named Playmode comes to town to open a glamping camp for tourists. In a town gathering, a pair of company representatives from Tokyo pitch their plans. During the scene, easily the longest in the film, our attention is mainly on Takumi and other townspeople who quickly and perceptively poke holes in the designs and the ecological impact it will have.

“Water always flows downhill,” the village chief says. From here, “Evil Does Not Exist” sticks closer to those two representatives: Takahashi (Ryuji Kosaka) and Mayuzumi (Ayaka Shibutani). In another film, they might be extras or villains, but for Hamaguchi, they’re people, like any others, with their own hopes and regrets. When they, after being pressured by their boss in a meeting over Zoom, return to spend time with Takumi and convince him to be the camp’s caretaker, it’s not clear until the film’s last bewildering and unforgettable moments if they’re becoming friends or if one side will dominate the other. “Balance is key,” one character says of nature in the film. “Evil Does Not Exist,” though, is boldly uneven. Its final, harrowing scenes, bathed in an intoxicating mist, pass in a comparative rush. In interviews, Hamaguchi has suggested his movie remains mysterious even to him. It’s a jarring finale but also a devastatingly haunting one that blends a child’s fate with a fawn’s – another doppelganger, maybe – leaving us to ponder an earlier exchange between Takumi and Takahashi about deer the glamping site would displace. “Where would they go?” Takumi asks. “Somewhere else, I guess,” Takashi shrugs. By Jake Coyle

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