Returning to the aftermath-of-a-crime ensemble terrain of his well-received 2010 “Villain,” which was also adapted from a novel by Shuichi Yoshida, Sang-il Lee’s “Rage” is an astute mixture of multi-strand drama and murder mystery that engrosses for two solid hours. Unfortunately, at that point it collapses into a last-act puddle of bathos — in which virtually every major character must have a hysterical sobbing or just-plain-hysterical scene to unleash all hitherto suppressed emotions. This climactic sentimental overkill may go down well with Japanese audiences, but will only hobble an otherwise worthy film’s prospects farther afield.
A grisly crime scene at the beginning raises expectations for a serial-killer story that does not, in fact, emerge. Nonetheless, police remain fixated on the shocking slaying of an ordinary suburban married couple in their home, with few clues to go on beyond the killer etching the titular word in blood on a door. They do have a primary suspect, one Yamaguchi, a young man with a history of disturbed behavior. But his whereabouts are unknown, and it eventually emerges that after this double homicide he managed to have some cosmetic surgery, so the media saturation of “Wanted” photos can only help so much.
Some months after this horrific attack, three men surface out of nowhere in very different settings, all apparent drifters — and each bearing a close-enough resemblance to the fugitive being sought. Two teens (Suzu Hirose, Takara Sakumoto) living in the Okinawa Islands discover amiable if slightly creepy, shaggy backpacker type Tanaka (Mirai Moriyama) squatting in a former military bunker on one small, otherwise uninhabited isle.
Having just rescued his unstable daughter Aiko (Aoi Miyazaki) from an abusive sex-worker situation, widower Yohei (Ken Watanabe) indulges her charitable feelings toward rudderless loner Tashiro (Kenichi Matsuyama). He even gives the quiet young stranger a job working the docks in their Chiba fishing town. But he’s uneasy when the very needy Aiko enters into a relationship with this man they know nothing about.
Accustomed to treating his sex life as a short-attention-spanned diversion from semi-closeted salaryman life, jaded Tokyo resident Yuma (Satoshi Tsumabuki) surprises himself by bringing forlorn bathhouse trick Naoto (Go Ayano) home. What’s more, he’s soon introducing him to his terminally ill mother, and otherwise treating the close-mouthed youth like a real boyfriend. Yet he still knows knows zilch about Naoto’s life prior to their meeting.
As these three mysterious men grow more intimate with and mutually dependent on the good samaritans who (for variable reasons of their own) have taken them in, Lee does a fine job sustaining the complex tensions of Yoshida’s plot. Most notably, “Rage” juggles the suspense mechanics so nimbly that each of the trio grow equally more suspect (as being the elusive killer) up to the last minute. Despite that compelling plot hook, however, this is not primarily a genre exercise. Rather, it’s a drama about the universal thirst for connection and trust, one whose central characters are all nicely dimensionalized.
All the more dismaying, then, that such expert storytelling leads toward a climactic flood of tears that goes on so long — amongst so many weeping/ranting/primal-screaming characters — that it begins to feel like self-parody. Catharsis is one thing; this plays like a never-ending seizure of over-emoting, as Ryuichi Sakamoto’s attractive score develops compositional carpal tunnel trying both to complement and contain the onscreen excess.
Until that point, Lee’s starry cast does very well. And even to the tear-soaked end, there is no doubting the merits of a fine tech and design package, with Norimichi Kasamatsu’s excellent widescreen photography making the most of the colorfully diverse locations.