Friday, July 11, 2014

NYAFF ’14 & Japan Cuts ’14: The Devil’s Path

Junji Sudo is a yakuza. Shuichi Fujii is a journalist. That means they are both users. Yet, each will discuss justice with earnest indignation in Kazuya Shiraishi’s The Devil’s Path (trailer here), which screens as a joint presentation of the 2014 New York Asian Film Festival and Japan Cuts.

In the opening scenes, the audiences watches Sudo kill, torture, and torment several victims, so it causes no great distress to learn he is now on death row, awaiting word on his final appeal. Before he goes, Sudo has a few things he wants the world to know. Fujii’s editor assigns him the provisional interview, expecting he will quickly dismiss Sudo’s letter as an attempt to buy time at the eleventh hour and move on to the political scandal stories she is much more interested. However, it does not work that way.

Sudo is willing to admit to three additional murders the cops know nothing about, for the sake of implicating the associate who set him up. He had always considered the man he called “Doc” (or “Sensei” depending on the translation) as a close friend and ally. During their time together, Doc was the brains behind some really nasty real estate and insurance schemes and Sudo was the brawn. Nevertheless, Doc duped the yakuza into believing his closest cronies had betrayed him. Needless to say, they all met very bad ends, for which Sudo will likely pay the highest price.

Naturally, Fujii is skeptical and Sudo’s accounts are frustratingly light on details. Considering how many horrible deeds he committed, these three just were not that memorable at the time. Yet, when Fujii starts probing, Sudo’s story holds up.

The idea of a malevolent bad guy helping an investigating-protagonist solve some sort of crime probably sounds like another pale copy of the Silence of the Lambs-Blacklist formula, but there is considerably more to Devil’s Path. For starters, Fujii’s relationship with Sudo is decidedly awkward and nearly entirely antagonistic. It is also a rather bracing look at what are typically considered white collar crimes, perpetrated in a lethal blue collar fashion.

As Sudo, Pierre Taki is a truly riveting presence, holding a vice-like grip on viewers. In contrast, Takayuki Yamada’s Fujii is rather weak and dull opposite him, which is surprising given his fierceness in the thematically related The Samurai that Night (seen at last year’s Japan Cuts). On the other hand, Lily Franky calls and raises Taki as the ruthless Doc. Usually cast in shaggy dog roles, such as the easy going father in Kore-eda’s Like Father, Like Son, Franky delivers a lightning bolt out of the blue here. Amongst the rest of the large but mostly beaten down supporting ensemble, Nozomi Muraoka stands out a bit, bringing some Runyonesque dash as Fujii’s editor.

In all honesty, Devil’s Path could have lost an entire subplot involving Fujii’s wife Yoko and her mounting frustrations caring for his mentally deteriorating mother. Yet, the grit and grime of Sudo’s story is quite distinct from any other yakuza film. Recommended for those who prefer their crime dramas dark and existential, The Devil’s Path screens tomorrow (7/12) at the Japan Society, as a joint selection of this year’s NYAFF and Japan Cuts: the New York Festival of Contemporary Japanese Film.