Thursday, June 28, 2018

NYAFF ’18: The Third Murder

This will be an awkward case for hotshot attorney Tomoaki Shigemori. It will remind him guilt and culpability are not necessarily the same thing. The case against Takashi Misumi also illustrates the systemic advantages enjoyed by Japanese prosecutors. Yet, most vividly, the pitched court battle demonstrates how elusive the truth can be, as a tangible, knowable thing. Shigemori will try his best to uncover the truth while obeying his clients instructions—ironically, two objectives that never really concerned him much before—in Hirokazu Koreeda’s The Third Murder (trailer here), which screens during the 2018 New York Asian Film Festival.

Misumi confessed and his lawyers never laid the groundwork to question his culpability. By the time Shigemori is called in, the best he can hope to do is challenge the charge of felony homicide, by separating the alleged murder and robbery of Misumi’s former factory boss into two discrete acts. The way Misumi keeps changing his story makes his task even more difficult. Nevertheless, as Shigemori digs in, he starts to question many of his assumptions.

Frankly, a fact-finding trip to Misumi’s frosty Hokkaido hometown only raises more questions and uncertainty, starting with his previous two murder convictions. During his previous trial, Misumi never denied killing two loan sharks who were preying on the town’s dispossessed blue-collar workers. Shigemori starts to see a pattern emerging when the sins of his latest “victim” become apparent, but his client refuses to give him the confirmation he so earnestly desires.

In the hands of a lesser filmmaker, Third Murder could have been a ridiculously overwrought and symbolically overblown film, but Koreeda exercises rigorous restraint. He only hints obliquely at possible religious and spiritual interpretations, which makes them exponentially more tantalizing. Every step of the way, he focuses on the mundane and absurd bureaucratic rituals of the Japanese legal system, which keeps the film firmly grounded in reality. Yet, there is always a sense of some greater truth just beyond our reach.

Third Murder also proves Koji Yakusho is one of the absolute best in the business. He makes Misumi acutely human but also profoundly inscrutable. He might be a cypher, but he still expresses remorse and compassion, in ways that will hit viewers hard. Suzu Hirose is even more poignant and affecting as Sakie Yamanaka, the dead man’s daughter, who clearly feels a greater emotional connection to Misumi. Masaharu Fukuyama is also terrific subtly portraying Shigemori and the slow re-awakening of his integrity and idealism. He and Yakusho are riveting whenever they face-off together, even though they both usually tack an understated, slow-burning course.

This is the kind of film that will reward periodic revisiting over the course of decades. It chronicles injustice, but it is a deeply, deeply moral film. Thematically, it is a dramatic departure for Koreeda, but it still examines relationships between parents and children through an undeniably humanistic lens. Yet, if you strip away the Christian imagery and potential allegorical readings, you will still have a compelling legal procedural. Very highly recommended, The Third Murder screens Saturday afternoon (6/30) at the Walter Reade, as part of this year’s NYAFF.