Before achieving mainstream success with Hula Girls (2006), a based-on-fact drama about a group of women who save their economically-troubled mountain village through hula dancing, director Lee Sang-il was best-known for his irreverent youth movies 69 (2004) and Scrap Heaven (2005). After a break of four years following the mass-acceptance of Hula Girls, the director has returned to the territory of his earlier work with Villain, an adaptation of a novel by Shûichi Yoshida, with whom Lee co-wrote the screenplay. This is a more serious undertaking than Lee’s earlier youth films, reflecting awareness of his elevated status as major filmmaker since Hula Girls not only picked up the Best Film and Best Director trophies at the Japan Academy Awards, but was also honoured by Kinema Junpo. As such, Villain soberly addresses the social conditions that cause the destructive actions of disaffected Japanese youths, while simultaneously considering the ripple effects (distressing loss, hurtful gossip, media intrusion) that become heavy burdens for their elders. The troublesome protagonist here is Yuichi (Satoshi Tsumabuki), a quiet labourer from the countryside who lives with his grandparents and spends his nights either aimlessly driving around or seeing women he has met through dating websites; he has been spending time with Yoshino (Hikari Mitsushima), who works in insurance sales, but she is more interested in wealthy university student Keigo (Masaki Okada). When the self-centred Yoshino thinks nothing of abruptly cancelling a date with Yuichi to go for a ride with Keigo instead, the rejected Yuichi follows, leading to a roadside quarrel that ends in a tragic crime of passion.
Villain is the kind of emotionally-exhausting experience that expects the viewer to be in for the long-haul, as this is more slow-burning character study than thriller with Lee not only scrutinising the behaviour of the young murderer, but also examining the reactions of family and friends on the periphery. After half an hour of exposition, the narrative almost starts again, with Yuichi embarking on another ill-fated relationship by responding to an email sent by a similarly lonely soul; clothing store employee Mitsuyo (Eri Fukatsu) is clearly bored with her small-town existence, but gets more than she bargained for when she reaches out to Yuichi for companionship. Their relationship is initially of a sexual nature, with Yuichi struggling to open-up emotionally until he suddenly tells Mitsuyo his terrible secret while eating lunch at a tourist restaurant; although upset by this confession, Mitsuyo believes that Yuichi’s crime was provoked and makes a conscious choice to help him evade arrest. This lovers-on-the-run element has led Villain to be compared to Nicholas Ray’s They Live by Night (1949) and Robert Altman’s Thieves Like Us (1974), but Lee never tries to suggest that the roads of Japan are as evocative as those of the American Midwest; events take place on the southern island of Kyushu, mostly in and around dreary small towns with heavy rain beating down and characters trapped in a world of restricted opportunities. Yuichi tells Mitsuyo that he wants to change his life, but limited imagination meant that dying his hair was all he could think of with regards to reinvention.
While the relationship between Yuichi and Mitsuyo is the core of the film, Lee also cuts away to show how the investigation into – and media coverage of – the murder of Yoshino affects the families of both the victim and the killer. Yuichi’s grandmother (Kirin Kiki) must deal with the kind of media intrusion that was heavily criticised in Ryôichi Kimizuka’s Nobody to Watch Over Me (2008), while Yoshino’s parents are subjected to gossip regarding their late daughter’s sex life. The grandmother is harassed by the press outside her home for information about her wanted grandson, with the reporters even trying to follow her on to a public bus. At the funeral for Yoshino, a careless mourner comments, ‘If the perpetrator was a college kid, that’s some consolation. If it was someone she met on a dating site, it’d be humiliating,’ suggesting the social stigma that has afflicted her parents at what should be time of private grieving. In terms of assigning blame for what has occurred, Lee does not condone the actions of Yuichi, but certainly points out that he is not the only person who is prone to unpleasant outbursts; rich student Keigo literally kicks working-class girl Yoshino out of his car because he believes she is ‘trashy’, while the bereaved father (Akira Emoto) berates his wife (Yoshiko Miyazaki) for allowing their daughter to go to live in the city. Such context entails a lengthy running time of 140 minutes, yet Villain is an engrossing drama that never feels unnecessarily padded due to the uniformly excellent performances and Lee’s confident story-telling.
Villain opens in UK theaters on August 19th, 2011.