Leeds International Film Festival 2023 brought Ryûsuke Hamaguchi’s magnificent Evil Does Not Exist to the audiences in Leeds.
The film told an overwhelmingly surprising story in an almost purest, silent tone. No matter how much it may confuse you, the beauty of nature and the surprise of the ending are undeniable. To me, Evil Does Not Exist captured a dimension beyond human cognition – there was, the gaze of the God of the Mountain.
The story begins at a small, beautiful village in a mountain near Tokyo, where the worker Takumi and his young daughter Hana have been living for a couple of years. The locals highly rely on the stream water in the middle of the forest. One of the main jobs of Takumi is transporting the water around for the local restaurants.
One day, the staff of a consultant company came to the village, briefing them about the plan to build a camping centre in the upstream area of the river. The unconcerned planning infuriated the locals, but the decision to improve the plan according to the local’s demands was beyond the consultants’ hands. One of the staffers, Takahashi, was finally disappointed by the project and intended to move to this village. He visited Mr. Takumi and talked about the idea. But on that afternoon, Takumi’s young daughter Hana disappeared.
I believe most audiences would agree that the film has two parts: the ending, and the rest of it. I wasn’t trying to be funny. Evil Does Not Exist has its unique narrative pacing, in which 99% of the film is covered in an overwhelmingly calm and peaceful tone, but then suddenly falls into a tense, unexpected ending. The ending is too abrupt to connect with the previous story, leaving a shocking aftertaste while also making the film confusing.
So what is Evil Does Not Exist really about?
Going back to the story itself, we may find the answer. The story can be roughly divided into two chapters: first, the conflict between the supporting and the against parties of building a camping centre, and second, the day Takahashi spent with Takumi, learning more about the place.
Mr Takumi is the one who “knows everything about this area”, said the headman of the village. He is also the only household living remotely in the mountain while the rest of the characters live in the village. He is concerned about whether the camping centre will affect the water quality, and the life spaces of the wild deer, which his daughter Hana loves a lot.
“Balance is important”, said Mr Takumi when Takahashi first visited the village to brief him about the plan. The balance between humans and nature was my impression at the beginning. After watching the ending, I realised that balance can also applied between one person (Takumi) and another (Takahashi), one group (resident) and another (invader). If we further link the imbalance among men to the balance between humans and nature, considering that human behaviours are also a section of the bigger game, everything starts making sense.
In a game, a balance appears as an equal result. Either 50/50, or 0/0. Sadly, a 50/50 balance has never been reached in the film.
When putting the locals and the camping centre company in one game, the residents game against the invaders about the quality of their living resources. They once agreed that if the company can improve the plan, the residents will welcome it. But the plan was unchangeable. Building the camping centre will unavoidably affect the water quality. So, it will be a one-victor game, either the local or the company.
But to Takumi, the only household living in the middle of the mountain, isn’t Takahashi, the man who wants to move here, also an invader, too? In the game of nature, in order to be “balanced”, shouldn’t the input of a new person push another one out? I don’t know if there is an ethical answer to this question, but it appears that Takumi has accepted it.
It, therefore, leads to the abrupt ending, which puts the disappearance of Hana and the entering of Takahashi against each other in one game. To Takumi, the disappearance of Hana is the collapse of the old balance, which triggered his human instinct to protect her daughter. And a collapse, similar to a snow slide, always falls in a second from the state of calmest peace, exactly like how the film presents it.
The ending is beautifully constructed. At the very end, the camera gently pulls away until you can’t clearly see the characters but still know about the plot. The camera then closed its eyes, like an emotionless one who only cares about the result: Has the new balance been reached? The only “character” who would ask this question is also the one who creates the game. Apart from nature, or more attached to the film, the God of the mountain, I couldn’t think of any other explanation.
It reminds me of another Ryûsuke film, Asako I & II. That film, to me, not only shows a complicated love story but also amazingly displays the unseeable, divine instructions from Eros. A similar feeling appears again when watching Evil Does Not Exist. This film also reifies the existence of an invisible figure, only more tangibly. I received it from the eyes of the deers that only appear when Hana is around, listened to it from the gunshot that people can only hear about, and felt it from the movements of the camera. It hides behind the story during the entire film, a pure, innocent, fragile figure who sets up and makes deals in all the games.