TIFF 2023: Evil Does Not Exist, I Don’t Know Who You Are
Ryusuke Hamaguchi‘s Evil Does Not Exist begins by removing every element that might be reasonably expected from his work by now. Instead of long group dialogue sessions and theatrical/ therapeutic role-play, Evil starts with a generously prolonged, people-free dolly shot through a forest, the camera pointed straight up at the sky as it’s broken up by branches passing overhead. With a higher-resolution camera and some fancy post work, the forest could be a formalist spectacle—tree limbs overlapping and dissolving, the lattices created in the process, etc. But visual high definition has never been one of Hamaguchi’s priorities, as his movies remain oddly close to the SD end of the spectrum: while not crazy pixelated, this opener’s definitely a little low-res. What registers is motion of interest for its own sake without giving the eye anything in particular to rest on or dissect during the vertical drift, all those branches registering as so many blurry lines. The shot is backed by Eiko Ishibashi’s score, which is reasonably gorgeous without committing to any emotion more clearly definable than “unsettled,” while humanity finally shows up in the form of an extended wide shot of a man chopping wood.
All this has the faint whiff of rooting out audience weaklings after Drive My Car‘s thematic directness and super-sized success. Hamaguchi does eventually get around to “giving the people what they want,” defined here as a long town hall meeting establishing the film’s main throughline: a conflict over land development initiated by Tokyo outsiders and foisted on resistant rural locals, with wood-chopper and all-round odd-jobs-man Takumi (Hitoshi Omika) caught in the middle. He’s one of the unimpressed residents who watch as two representatives from a talent agency inexplicably tasked with launching a glamping site present a tremendously corporate video, one as unconvincing as all those ads about how BP loves the environment. This encounter crystallizes a familiar contemporary state of things: a large company comes to effectively destroy an area and begins by defensively hectoring locals about how it’s actually for their economic benefit, via answerable employees presenting a project they barely understand in front of a group ostensibly being asked for feedback but who have no meaningful ability to push back. The land’s already been bought and the whole meeting is a gigantic exercise in optics that will satisfy no one but has, of course, been mandated from up top.
It’s maybe not entirely coincidental that this central sequence takes the form of a screening followed by a Q&A with a pissed-off audience, as if Evil is preemptively parodying a worst-case scenario of how it might be received. Hamaguchi takes a circuitous path ringed by unexpected, un-gentle humor, but keeps returning to the developers-vs.-locals throughline. That’s discarded as misdirection in Evil‘s last 20 minutes, which instead activate a plot thread barely foreshadowed earlier and suddenly making it the urgent focus. What follows is easy to follow on a literal level—it’s very clear what happens—but baffling on a symbolic one, or even the basic one of “what incited this plot development.” While I enjoy an audience alienation experiment a little more than the next person, after it’s over I also guiltily want answers, so I asked four consecutive people what they thought was going on here. Credit to Charles Bramesco for providing a good possibility: the final scenes veer towards theatrical dramaturgy that’s borderline modern dance, with actors embodying latent dynamics via bodies in quasi-balletic motion. With that thought in mind, it’s easier for me to perceive one potential metaphorical design to the ending: the seeds of a conflict that might crest in ten years’ time peaks within the span of a day, an acceleration as dramatic and abrupt as the exponential climate change we’re experiencing. Whatever’s going on here, Evil Does Not Exist is pleasingly obdurate, genuinely confounding in an uncommon way.
M. H. Murray’s I Don’t Know Who You Are is a solid feature debut, defined in this case as two strong scenes, not too many bad ones and a strong sense of a particular micro-milieu. Toronto multi-instrumentalist Benjamin (Mark Clennon) is introduced on an average Friday: he wakes up, smokes a joint, fries the one egg in his fridge and eventually ambles into teaching his first lesson of the day. When he’s raped on the street after a party, his trauma, anxiety and shame are exacerbated by his financial precarity when he learns the PEP medication he needs to start taking within 72 hours to mitigate the risk of HIV infection is not covered by government health insurance. Unable to afford the out-of-pocket cost, he sets out on a loan-begging tour to acquire cash as fast as possible. The drama doubles as a portrait of Toronto in hyper-gentrification mode, with Benjamin supplicating himself before a variety of more economically secure acquaintances.
The film’s two strongest scenes have Benjamin hitting up his ex Oscar (Kevin A. Courtney) in a modest apartment, an encounter that begins horribly and ends unexpectedly well, almost immediately followed by doing the same with his long-unseen friend Agnes (Deragh Campbell) at the lavish downtown apartment she shares with her husband. That scene performs an inverse trajectory from pleasurable reunion to humiliation; both are excruciating and surprising in their own ways. I Don’t Know‘s weaknesses are pretty normal: a number of scenes that aren’t necessary or overly attenuated, beats hit a few too many times, extreme metaphorical bluntness. (In anger, Benjamin throws a glass, but later makes its shards into a mobile, transforming something shattered into art, just like writer-director Murray drawing upon a similar incident in his own life for this film.) The film is at its surest in laying out the granular specifics of a very particular healthcare system and its lesser-publicized gaps, and in its portrait of the dirtbag-creatives circles Benjamin occupies.