A glittering landscape of ice and snow and mysterious alpine woods opens Ryusuke Hamaguchi’s Evil Does Not Exist, a tone poem of a rural idyll built through quiet shots of locals going about their ordinary lives in the community of Mizubiki, which is within driving distance from the Tokyo developers keen to build a wilderness escape for city dwellers.

The project would upset the bucolic lifestyle of single dad Takumi (Hitoshi Omika) and his daughter, Hana (a delightful Ryo Nishikawa) who exist in harmony with the environment, taking only what they need. Takumi works as a local jack-of-all-trades, including a woodchopper, and instills a love of nature in his daughter whose enchantment with wildlife, ponds and trees reflects the bone-deep connection of a lonely child.

Locals react with alarm after a town hall meeting with Mayuzumi (Ayaka Shibutani) and her slick colleague Takahashi (Ryuji Kosaka) — representatives from the developer, a talent agency, of all things ­— reveals the potential for problems resulting from poor planning and shortcuts that would prove harmful to the community. It’s suggested they approach Takumi to help them to understand the issues if they want locals to support the development.

While another filmmaker might portray the representatives as unsympathetic, Mayazumi and Takahashi come across as equally baffled by problems in the project plan, which they try to convince higher-ups to correct when they return to Tokyo. Their boss offers a solution and forces them back to Mizubiki to solicit Takumi’s help to win over the community. While on the road, both cautiously express feeling conflicted by their boss’s suggestion. Newbie Mayazumi laughingly tells her coworker that at least the film business is upfront about dishonest dealings unlike other industries.

A still from Evil Does Not Exist • Courtesy

Hamaguchi bats away monolithic stereotypes about the differences between rural and urban, developer and locals, by imbuing the people in Evil with believable life struggles as they strive to find modest livelihoods, a loving partner or a community to live in that fits them.

The otherworldly atmosphere of the community, beautifully captured by Yoshio Kitagawa’s cinematography, is frequently undercut by composer Eiko Isibashi’s musical score with its jagged endings in the middle of scenes, which stop you from leaning into the beauty of the film. Although disturbing, it’s probably a good thing.

The film takes a surprising turn in its final scenes, after Takumi grudgingly agrees to help the representatives, and takes them to his cabin which is nestled in the woods. The title of the film, and the clever sequence of when each word displays, circles to the film’s opening shots of ethereal treetops. Without giving anything away, the film’s mystifying ending forces you to rethink everything you’ve viewed so far, while you sit with the shock of the final scene.

I love films like this because it displays how it’s possible to create interesting, beautiful films using a seemingly simple, minimal storytelling style. It’s a testament to Hamaguchi’s skill as a filmmaker that you’d want to see again and again. Try and catch it anywhere you can.

’Evil Does Not Exist’ is presently screening at the SIFF Uptown. Go to siff.net for details.

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