The Murders of Oiso (Japan/Hong Kong/South Korea, 2019) [OAFF 2020]

The Murders of Oiso was honored with the Japan Cuts Award at the Osaka Asian Film Festival 2020. It is the sophomore feature from director Takuya Misawa who made waves with his 2015 debut Chigasaki Story. He returns with a slice-of-life film shot with a Hong Kong crew that uses a cut-up narrative and noirish atmosphere to examine the shadowy side of the titular town and its citizens.

Oiso is a quiet and pristine seaside town in Kanagawa, nestled between a beautiful coastline and scenic countryside. The location is marked by the colors of fall as the season unfolds under cold and clean sunlight with a chill in the air. This is where the prime ministers of Japan retire to, a pleasant place chosen by Misawa because it could be emblematic of Japan. Although beautiful on the outside, hidden inside are various instances of small-scale corruption as conducted by seemingly average people, thereby making life harder for everyone.

Our window into this world comes through the strained friendship between Tomoki (Haya Nakazaki), Shun (Koji Moriya), Kazuya (Yusaku Mori), and Eita (Shugo Nagashima). They have hung out together since childhood and this connection has continued into adulthood as Kazuya’s uncle, their former teacher, helped the four get jobs in the family construction firm. When he is found dead, their relationship dynamics are disrupted, especially for Kazuya who has to take on the mantle of running the construction company. In doing so, he discovers that criminals are using it for their own gain.

This disruption is rich with moments of drama as secrets emerge such as Ito’s secret wife Chisato (Natsuko Hori) being revealed. These breaks from normal behavior create the catalyst for the characters to either fully accept conforming to or rebelling against their positions in society as their battle with their complicated history is revealed.

The central relationship between the four boys is a really odd one as they act out roles that allow them to avoid directly confronting problems in their lives. From the start, it is clear that a shared suffering of being under the thumb of others and suffering abuse links them so that even in instances of cowardice, cruelty and violence, they retain sympathy. Even Kazuya, who acts like a bully to those around him, is sympathetic because he does so to keep the protective circle around him. This realistic dichotomy of contradictory behavior powers a constant tension in the film which spikes with acts of criminality.

The list of sins will be familiar to the audience as they are culled from newspaper headlines. Illegal fly-tipping, bullying, elder abuse, sexual harassment and worse are touched upon but never shown as Misawa favors shooting scenes without showing everything. He withholds audio, cuts away to the reaction to the crime and uses visual or audio cues to clue the audience in to what has happened. Observant viewers will be able to tell how people regard each other from the actors’ blocking and movement or just recognizing someone who is spreading news having previously peered in on an argument.

Artful in audio and visual terms, the film’s descent into criminality and death is presaged by an interesting use of camera angles and editing to create a noir tone or to add a horror. Sometimes a flashback between characters after someone picks up a specific prop is enough to set off an idea of a menacing backstory so we understand why someone like Shun wants to break away from the toxic situation.

This could be heavy handed in tackling social issues but it isn’t. Nothing is ever directly shown because Takuya Misawa’s script is loaded with techniques to create a space for the viewer to think about why the characters behave the way they do. There are three different narrators (including Misawa) who think back on memories or offer secondhand information. As such, the narrative is told in a nonlinear fashion from different perspectives and timelines to create a patchwork of crimes and misdemeanors. There is an ambiguity to everything we see but everything is eventually connected in a complicated web of relationships, creating a stifling sense of conformity and control as everyone is implicated whether as bystanders, victims, accomplices or predators.

If there is any criticism it is that the indirectness sometimes leads to no clean resolution – what happens to Ito’s wife, Chisato? Furthermore, the demands on the viewer’s attention and the ambiguous rewards in story make the 76 minutes feel longer and unfocused than it actually is. Sometimes, though, life is like that and having a film that requires attention and addresses social issues is a good thing in a sea of simple entertainment.

The Murders of Oiso was shown at the Osaka Asian Film Festival on March 7 and 14.