Simultaneously a murder mystery, character study, social critique and lovers-on-the-lam meller, Lee Sang-il’s “Villain,” a psychological thriller about the strangling death of a young woman, apparently inherited multiple agendas from co-scripter Suichi Yoshida’s award-winning source novel. Popular Japanese helmer Lee (“Hula Girls”) pulls off key aspects with aplomb, but the elements never fully coalesce. Though consistently less than the sum of its parts, this highly anticipated pic boasts atmospheric lensing, iconic settings, a driving rhythmic score and emotionally intense perfs (Eri Fukatsu snagged Montreal’s actress prize), assuring decent domestic returns and extended Asian play. The film bowed Sept. 11 locally.
As revealed early on, the pic’s characters are seldom what they seem, their actual innocence and villainy measured in relative, ever-shifting terms. Hapless victim Yoshino (Hikari Mitsushima) turns out to have been a venal, vindictive woman; college student Masuo (Masaki Okada), the seemingly blameless initial suspect, is a heartless rich kid more responsible for the victim’s death than he appears to be. The actual murderer, working-class misfit Yuichi (Satoshi Tsumabuki), looking anything but respectable in dyed blonde hair while tooling around in his car, proves to be a shy guy who spends his spare time caring for the elderly.
Though Lee carefully maps out these various players’ intersections and interactions, “Villain” often feels diffuse and unfocused. The story of the murder itself is fragmented and interspersed throughout the narrative in the form of flashbacks, and these scenes share the spotlight with certain violent incidents that occur after the homicide. A sidebar plot follows Yuichi’s grandmother (Kirin Kiki) and her double victimization: first, in closeup, as sadistic goons take her life savings; and next, in long shot, as rabid journalists surround her, completely swallowing her up. A symmetrical thread finds the murdered girl’s father (marvelous rubber-faced character actor Akira Emoto) in pursuit of the college Romeo whose callous cruelty triggered the tragedy. But in the absence of any consistent vantage point or overall aesthetic to tie together the pic’s aftershocks, their effect is greatly mitigated.
The lion’s share of the film correctly belongs to the doomed romance between Yuichi and Mitusyo (Fukatsu), a lonely woman whose thirst for love is so great that, even after a near-rape at the hands of the sexually clueless, socially inept Yuichi, she still comes back for more. “Villain” truly comes into its own during this suspended, bittersweet time-out as the lovers, holing up in a remote lighthouse, discover what might have been. Both actors infuse their careworn personae with the extraordinary needy vulnerability of people who, in the opening words of Nick Ray’s “They Live by Night” (which “Villains,” at its best, recalls) “have never been properly introduced to the world.”