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Villain film review


Can the popular novel make the transition to screen unscathed...?

Villain ('Akunin') (2011)

Japanese films can go either way - the unnecessarily epic or brutally butchered. Sang-il Lee's most recent Academy Award winning offering, Villain (Akunin), adapts the critically-acclaimed novel of the same name, unfortunately falling into the it-drags-it's-so-long category - but at least doing so in style.

Meeting a "blue-collared loser" on a dating website proves fatal for shallow Yoshino (Hikari Mizushima), who's soon the subject of a murder investigation. As a victim, she's so loathsome as to almost deserve her fate. Initially drawn to each other by their loneliness and depressing status as singletons, the remaining leads are later bound by their misery and fear of losing each other when Yuichi's (Satoshi Tsumabuki) link to Yoshino's murder is revealed.

Scriptwriter and original novelist Shuichi Yoshida clearly uses vile characterisation to play on the title, challenging our expectations. All the male characters are arseholes, and many of the females only marginally more sympathetic, leaving viewers little choice but to root for the murderer. Young saleswoman Mitsuyo (Eri Fukatsu), is an optimistic innocent, endearingly confessing "I guess I'm a square" and full of child-like amazement that she's dating someone with bleached hair. A tad pathetic in her unquestioning blind devotion to the unfortunate Yuichi, alongside the victim's mother and killer's grandmother, she's easily the most likeable character in the film.

Initially depicted charming the ladies with lines like "Want to go to a hotel ? We'll save the eating for later" and paying dating-site girls that he sleeps with, Yuichi is a Jekyll and Hyde figure who's all about actions, rather than words. Unlike his cruel playboy rival, Masuo (Masaki Okada) who smoothly calls his date "kind of trashy", Yuichi is a silent brooder who's like an altered person in the film's final 30 minutes, actually upping his character's dimensions.

Reactions are over-done at times, although a thoroughly convincing awkward relationship between the leads feels more like lust than love. Amid all the rain, head-bowing, and crying, some supposedly moving scenes don't quite work, too full of occasionally tiresome clichéd reactions. One scene to look out for involving an amazingly blunt bus driver manages to surprise, showing that despite the clichés and contrived back-story, Lee is able to remain fresh, even after an exceedingly drawn-out but engaging first hour and a half.

A memory-jogging intro sets us up for plenty of flashbacks and some inventive, although not entirely successful, scene transitions. Unlike many translations, subtitles for Yoshida's screenplay work well, although there are moments when it's obvious that direct lines from the novel have made the final cut. Particularly memorable is Mitsuyo's initial chat-up line, somehow successfully luring in Yuichi: "We had a good time chatting about lighthouses".

A scenic, shattered modern fairytale and tragic love story, Villain is food for thought, questioning individual responsibility and highlighting the cruel timing of fate. An at-first overwrought emotional climax unfortunately trickles into an unnecessary ending, but thankfully fails to completely obliterate memories of Villain's many strengths.

Although the running-time is far too long and 'odd' moments border on the absurd, there's some beautiful rain imagery - and juxtaposed scenes depicting two families torn apart are particularly effective in their emphasis on parental guilt and blame-throwing.

3 stars

Director: Sang-il Lee
Shuichi Yoshida
Running Time:
140 mins
Eri Fakatsu, Satoshi Tsumabaki, Akira Emoto, Hikari Mizushima

Villain is released on August 19th 2011


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