Wednesday, May 9, 2012

Picturing Humanity - Lee Sang-il’s VILLAIN is a new kind of Noir.

Sang-il Lee’s film Villain (2010) One of the benchmark selections of the Japan Society of NY’s Korean/Japanese crossover film series Love Will Tear Us Apart. Villain is an elegant and unsettling exercise in the eroticism of loneliness, centered on the murder of a young woman and the small constellation of people drawn into the turmoil. Director Sang-il Lee’s award winning adaptation of Yoshida Shuichi’s likewise celebrated novel (of the same name) is most alluring for its urgent score and clean visual aesthetic, which transposes a contemporary horror-genre aesthetic to an emotive human drama. Villain traces its mood and its sense of melodrama back to the days of American Film Noir, a genre of the 40’s and 50’s dedicated to common people caught in exceptional orbits of loneliness, violence, and desperation, driven to their worst. These associations aside, Lee’s film, both classic and contemporary, is most affecting because of the palpably broken hearts put forward by its cast, which Lee’s sense of framing and editing ardently emphasizes. 

Though the subject of director Lee’s Zainichi (Japanese-born Korean) ethnicity isn’t necessary to understand or even appreciate this film, it seems hard to imagine that it did not inform his depiction of protagonist Yuichi, at odds with the normal stream of society, who hates with the passion with which he loves.

Yuichi (Satoshi Tsumabuki) lives in a dreary Nagasaki fishing village, daunted by the visage of a wide ocean. “If you face the sea everyday, you feel like you've reached a dead-end.” He has no friends, and no lover. He works construction jobs and looks after his aging grandparents. Short on words and yet driven by fierce desire, Yuichi could nearly have stepped out from a Ki-duk Kim film. The only thing Yuichi is beholden to his extravagant car, which he uses to escape the imprisonment of an otherwise stagnant existence. Mitsuyo (Eri Fukatsu) lives in an equivalent monotony in Saga, working at a men’s clothing store along the same street that she was born and raised. She shares an apartment with her sister, whose boyfriend is a reminder of Mitsuyo’s single-ness. Yuichi and Mitsuyo discover each other on an online dating site, and when they meet in person, they fall into an obscure and clumsy love. Around this time, a woman’s body is found at Mitsue Pass, and Yuichi is implicated as a murder suspect.

Yuichi and Mitsuyo try to evade the police, as the murder, its participants, and its aftermath are gradually revealed in the present and flashback. Through the victims, the murderer, and the families that lie in the fallout of this tragedy, Villain makes one wonder; should someone be judged upon their worst or best moments - their most wholesome or most selfish impulse?

One could easily imagine Villain translated to the 40’s, or any other decade of the 20th century for that matter. What holds Villain to the present is primarily its objective time markers; phones, email, online-dating. The existential urgency that encircles these embedded elements, and the false autonomy that new technological forms have always engendered, isn’t a new phenomenon. Yuichi follows the age-old paradigm of getting a car to feel “adult” and “free.” Lee’s soft inclusion of these components – another similarity between he and Ki-duk Kim - is a compliment to the story’s human focus and is the crux of its timelessness. All things being equal, the desolation of Yuichi’s traditional hometown is the desolation of Mitsuyo’s modern hometown, is the desolation of empty nighttime roads, is the desolation of a lighthouse, is the desolation of hearts so eager to be touched and accepted, is the desolation of love diffused across emails and text messages, is the desolation of secrets.

Director Sang-il Lee’s chose Yoshida Shuichi, author of the original source novel, to co-write the script. This is often (but not always) a boon to the resulting film, not just as a matter of credibility, but because a formative collaboration occurs between two very different modes of storytelling that expand and contract a story when they come into contact. In the realm of the written word, a reader’s imagination is the camera. The reader births imagery from within, and makes the experience of an author’s specific words entirely idiosyncratic to their mind’s eye. However, with cinema the architecture of another world is imagined for the viewer. Therefore the abstraction of interpreting written words, which is the thrilling basis of reading, can be found cinematically in a filmmaker’s ability to create spaces of ambiguity, subtlety, and silence. Inside these spaces, a viewer asks questions, injects their imagination, and makes connections.

Director Lee and author Yoshida balance the brooding weight of what is shown in Villain with what isn’t shown. As actress Eri Fukatsu speaks of Mitsuyo, “She isn’t a character that can be understood in the mind. She is moved by a force rather than a rational thought.” After connecting emotionally to the film, this systemic and enigmatic “force,” is the space and silence that the viewer is charged to interpret. Villain’s final frames create an expanse all their own.

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