Sang-il Lee's "Akunin" (Villain) is a sobering look at human relationships and manages to challenge audience perceptions of good and evil. The true "villain" are the ones that we think.
Shimizu Ryuichi (portrayed by the wonderful Tsumabuki Satoshi) is a shy and lonely day laborer looking for love. He aimlessly spends time corresponding with girls via telephone dating services and going on random encounters with girls looking for spending cash.
His world is shattered one day when he is involved in the murder of one of his former encounters, the sweet-faced Ishibashi Yoshino (pretty Mistushima Hikari)who after being jilted by playboy Masuo Keijo (Okada Masuo playing against type)berates and mocks the troubled loner.
Yoshino's family is devastated by the death and Yoshino's father Yoshio (portrayed by the brilliant Eimoto Akira)in particular takes the death particularly hard vowing to find those responsible for her death.
Fleeing his hometown of Nagasaki, Ryuichi encounters a kindred-spirit in fellow loner and plain-jane Magome Mitsuyo (the beautiful Fukatsu Eri) who is works as a sales clerk in the neighboring town of Saga. Falling in love the couple decide to hideout in a local lighthouse but Ryuichi's increasing emotional instability and guilt soon overcomes him and endangers his newfound happiness with Mitsuyo.
From the opening "Psycho-like" sequence to Hisaichi Jo's "Vertigo" like music rifts, it is clear that Lee wanted to make a thriller with Hitchcockian overtones. Lee's deliberate pacing of the film and story plot twists also invoke those of the master the end result is a bit too familiar to other stories about convicts on the run.
While the screenplay based on Yoshida Jyuichi's popular novel is faithful to the source material, the film tries a bit too hard to be social commentary and a mirror to the prejudices and bias of audiences.
The true "villain" of the film is not Ryuichi but rather other sub-plot characters whose are the stereotyped heartless scum we love to despise like Masuo Keijo, a self-absorbed pretty whose vanity is vomit inducing; Tsutsumishita (Masuo Suzuki), a smooth-talking con-man and Yakuza affiliate who specializes in manipulating elderly woman out of their money, Shimizu Yoriko (Yo Kimiko), Ryuichi's negligent mother who leaves Ryuichi in the care of his kind but elderly grandmother (portrayed by the always outstanding Kiki Kirin) and the Japanese Tabloid Media whose relentless coverage of the murder destroys the lives of three families. It's overly familiar territory.
Yet "Akunin" still succeeds on the strength of Lee;s masterful direction and presentation. While "Hula Girls" is definitely the better film, Lee does bring the same type of energy and human drama to this film. Cinematographer Kasamatsu Norimichi's beautifully captures the rough landscape of the South, with wonderful backdrops of Nagasaki, Saga and Fukoka.
With his good looks and powerful presence Tsumabuki Satoshi delivers another energetic performance and portrayal of the emotionally fragile Ryuichi. The chemistry between his character and Fukamatsu Eri's Mitsyo is very convincing and the two make a wonderful odd couple. Kiki Kirin is the other standout as Ryuichi's kindly grandmother who befalls financial tragedy as the victim of a cruel conman. Eimoto Akira is also another highlight of the film. His tearful portrayal of a grieving father is very effective and tugs at the heartstrings. Okada Masuo's Keijo makes a great "villain" although he certainly is not one for subtle performances. His Keijo screams out "douchebag".
Lee's film is a very conventional film and is not overly ambitious or original but it does what it set out to do and make audience think.