It's a film by Masahiro Kobayashi, the first Japanese filmmaker to win the Grand Prize at the Yubari International Fantastic Film Festival. It's also one of Kobayashi's three consecutive prize-winning films at Cannes, with the other two being Kaizokuban Bootleg Film (1999) and Man Walking on Snow (2001).
The Japanese title is Koroshi, which translates literally as Killer. The story's protagonist is played by Ryo Ishibashi, whom I've seen being described as a "gentle and honest man" by the more intellectual reviewers because Kobayashi has called him as a typical Japanese salaryman. Horseshit. The guy's a twat. He lost his job in the recession and can't bring himself to tell his family, so he pretends to go to work every day and instead drives off to gamble at the pachinko parlours. Is he job-seeking? Nope. Is he doing anything of the slightest worth to himself or anyone else? Nope. Other people in the same position have been getting off their arses and looking for ways of supporting their families, but not Ishibashi.
In fairness the shame at being made unemployed in a "job for life" culture is a well known phenomenon in Japan and many people have had similarly extreme reactions. They don't all become hitmen, though. An old man, Ken Ogata, approaches him in the car park one day and asks if he'd like to commit murder for money. Ishibashi not only accepts, but at home starts doing cowboy poses in the mirror and soon discovers that he gets pleasure out of whacking people. Killing even makes him horny. Soon he's pestering Ogata to be allowed to do ever more hits.
Yup, "twat" has just graduated to "scum". I had a bit of trouble tracking down this film and the reason would be that this isn't audience-friendly material. It's just that it's not particularly easy to stay engaged with the story of such a drab, stupid loser.
Nevertheless, suprisingly, the film isn't dark. Kobayashi keeps everything serene and character-focused. It's a character piece, not a thriller. There's no excitement, tension or suspense. No killing is ever reported in the newspapers or investigated by the police, despite the fact that Kobayashi seems to be ensuring that his two-horse Hokkaido town has more corpses than people. (Well, at least I think it's Hokkaido.) We never even see the killing blow. Instead this is a quiet, snowbound piece in which the characters are the focus, not what they do. When Ishibashi starts killing people, the film is entirely uninterested in the killings. Instead it's all about the effect this has on unimaginative, middle-aged Ishibashi and his vague ideas of what it means to be a hit man. In some ways, it changes him for the better. It kicks him out of his self-pitying rut and gives him the oomph to improve his relationship with his wife (Nene Ohtsuka).
It's not a heavy film either. It settles lightly, like its ever-present snow, and despite a fairly slow-moving story, the time will pass faster than you think.
I didn't believe a word of it, though.
1. I can't believe that such a tiny rural town in law-abiding Japan could support such a lucrative hit-man industry. (Japan is extremely safe if you don't get involved with the yakuza, coming 56th out of a list of 57 countries in a table of murder rates in the last decade.) Similarly none of Ishibashi's victims seems important in the slightest and it's hard to believe that any of them matters enough to anyone to be murdered. Only a handful of neighbours and relatives would even have known of their existence in the first place.
2. There's never so much as a sniff of a police investigation, despite the fact that Ishibashi has committed twice as many killings on his own as you'd expect in all of Hokkaido over a year. He doesn't even hide the bodies. He shoots them in the street, then runs away.
3. No one seems aware that even a single murder has been committed.
4. Ishibashi and Ohtsuka have a daughter who's attending high school in America and who's old enough for Ohtsuka to be telling her off on the phone about boyfriends and condoms. This is credible for Ishibashi (born 1956), but not for Ohtsuka (born 1968). She'd have been 32 in the year 2000 and she's so delicate and pretty that you'd guess she was ten years younger than that.
Those are two big problems. Firstly, the hero's an idiot and a loser whom you'll want to slap. Secondly, the plot would become more believable if aliens landed from the Planet Zog. However that aside, it's a good film. Ishibashi eventually finds himself being hired to kill someone he knows, whereupon things get fascinating in a peaceful, non-confrontational way and his worldview gets shredded. The character work is strong. It's not afraid to be unsympathetic, obviously. The film's beautiful to look at (snow!) and I particularly liked the symmetry in the first and last murders. It's a movie to make you think, challenging movie hit men cliches by making Ishibashi so fond of them. It also has strong performances from its lead actors.
I think the film works. Theoretically it doesn't deserve to, but it's so clearly about its ethical resonances and character work that the plot holes become... well, a sort of feature. It's not about its plot. That's just a framework. This is a study of a boring middle-aged man and the morality of the worlds he creates for himself. After all, that's what he'd been doing even before Ken Ogata turned up.
Serene and chilly.