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REVIEW: VILLAIN (DVD)

Film: Villain
UK Distributor: Third Window Films
UK Release date: 5th December 2011
Certificate: 15
Director: Lee Sang-il
Starring: Eri Fukatsu, Masaki Okada, Hikari Mitsushima, Kirin Kiki
Running time: 140 mins
Genre: Drama
Country: Japan
Reviewer: Adam Wing

I usually avoid award-winning films because the height of expectation is often a curse, but it’s hard to ignore a success story of this magnitude. Based on Shuichi Yoshida’s novel of the same name, Villain is director Lee Sang Il’s follow-up to the award-winning movie Hula Girl. Not that Villain has proven any less successful. Villain earned 15 nominations at the 2010 Japan Academy Awards, including Best Picture, Best Director, Best Score and six nominations for its cast.
It took home 5 of them, including Best Actress, Best Actor and Best Supporting Actress. Fukatsu Eri, herself victorious, also took home the Best Actress award at the 2010 Montreal Film Festival. Tsumabuki Satoshi (The Magic Hour) stars as one of the villains of the title, suspected of murdering his on-off girlfriend (Hikari Matsushima, Love Exposure). He is supported on this bleak journey by the likes of Kiki Kirin (Still Walking), Emoto Akira (April Bride) and Okada Masaki (Confessions). Lee Sang Il’s Villain is available for the first time on UK shores this month courtesy of Third Window Films.
Yuichi (Tsumabuki Satoshi) lives at home with his grandmother (Kiki Kirin) and meets women through Internet dating sites. Like most of the characters here, he’s awkward and socially inept, and there’s a good chance that his latest find Yoshino (Matsushima Hikari) is only stringing him along until she finds someone better. When Yoshino is found dead, Yuichi becomes the main suspect, but not before the police dismiss arrogant upstart Masuo (Okada Masaki), the cocky young college student who could’ve seen her last. Yuichi moves on to lonely shop clerk Mitsuyo (Fukatsu Eri) and the two begin an intense relationship destined to end badly. With Yuichi’s grandmother getting involved with brutal con artists, and Yoshino’s father investigating his own daughter’s death, it soon becomes clear that no matter where you go, villains can be found on every corner.
Considering the films length, Villain doesn’t actually give its characters much to do for the majority of the movie. It’s a measured approach that manages to hold your attention throughout, thanks in large to a trio of standout performances. Of all the young characters Mitsuyo is perhaps the most innocent, and it’s Eri’s tender yet memorable turn that acts as a guiding light through the darkness. She’s not without her flaws – Villain comes complete with a fine array of imperfection – but her naivety is perhaps her biggest weakness and compared to some of the other characters, she seems to be the most humane. It’s an engaging turn either way, one we can all relate to in one way or another, looking for the ‘good’ in people can be both a blessing and a curse at times.
A couple of minor players deserve more screen time, probably because their faults evoke more sympathy than anybody else’s. Yuichi’s grandmother (Kirin Kiki) feels a sense of guilt for the way she raised Yuichi, a situation worsened by the blame laid on her by his actual mother. Yoshino’s father (Akira Emoto) is determined to find the person responsible for his daughters murder and his journey is more affecting than any of the others. Yuichi and Masuo are less likeable of course, not to mention deeply flawed and occasionally tragic. Both Satoshi and Masaki are asked to dig a lot deeper as a result, with uneven results that don’t always punctuate. Satoshi’s Yuichi should’ve been more engaging as a pivotal character, but his sulky teen approach doesn’t always hit the right notes. Masaki’s role is less demanding, but he succeeds in making his character arrogant, unruly and unsympathetic, which is all that’s expected of him at the end of the day.
On the evidence of Villain, Lee Sang Il appears to be a straightforward, no thrills filmmaker. That’s not a criticism, it’s refreshing to find a director that doesn’t rely on big twists or flashy direction to bail him out; he puts his faith in storyline, characters and raw emotion. It’s not a complete success, and there is a nagging doubt that he could’ve dug deeper, but noteworthy performances keep Villain on the right side of compelling. Bleak, drawn out and occasionally plodding, a wise man once said that true perfection has to be imperfect. Villain touches on brilliance from time to time, whilst painting a complex portrait of guilt and innocence, good and evil and right and wrong.
The faint whiff of missed opportunity lingers even longer than the prolonged running time, and Villain loses points for siding with its sensitive star, but there’s something about Il’s latest that keeps you from kicking it out the car on a murky night.