Following the success of his family dramas Like Father, Like Son, which won the Jury Prize at 2013 Cannes Film Festival, Our Little Sister, which competed for Palme d’Or at the 2015 Cannes Film Festival, and the critically acclaimed After the Storm (2016), Japanese film director, producer and screenwriter Hirokazu Kore-eda surprised his faithful audience by veering in a completely new direction with his legal thriller The Third Murder (Sandome no satsujin); it premiered in the main competition programme of the 74th Venice International Film Festival.
Misumi (Koji Yakusho), who recently completed a 30-year sentence for two murders, confesses to murdering his boss and burning his body after he got fired for theft. At first, the case seems to be a simple one when it comes into the hands of the jaded defense attorney Shigemori (Masaharu Fukuyama); he was pushed to take over the case by his older colleague Settsu (Kotaro Yoshida). Misumi faces a death penalty, but Shigemori at first states that he does not care about the truth; the only thing important is that they find a legal strategy that will work out. Naturally, the plot soon thickens; with every visit, Misumi starts to change his account of the crime, blurring the legal lines of the narrative into a whodunit.
Shigemori, who may have more in common with Misumi than not, finds himself in pursuit of the truth, the process made tedious by Misumi himself – he continues with his retellings of the event, making everyone question if he is a bit on the slow side, but also hinting that we are in for a criminal mastermind revelation. But there are no quick and easy answers to the case, and soon, more suspects appear, including the victim’s wife (Yuki Saito) and daughter Sakie (Suzu Hirose). The dialogue-rich narrative finds ways to not only deal with courtroom drama, but addresses family issues of various degrees, worker exploitation, death penalty in Japan, all the while questioning also the workings of the Japanese legal system – almost everyone involved seems to be merely interested in the case proceeding with minimal drama, while the truth is firmly pushed to take the back seat.
While The Third Murder is an unexpected creation by Kore-eda, there are still some of his staple family motives interwoven with the narrative – the complexity of the family relationships may not be at the forefront this time, but it proves to be the backbone of the legal drama narrative. The pacing of the story might be challenging for some viewers; we are used to more fast-paced courtroom drama films, while Kore-eda decidedly keeps an almost meditative pace as he layers the bits and pieces of narrative with careful precision. However, as a result, no one can say that the narrative is not wholesome, and it certainly takes no prisoners (or perhaps, it takes us all as prisoners) as it slowly marches to its decidedly philosophical conclusion.
What helps The Third Murder achieve its level is undoubtedly its superb cast; the performances are largely unembellished, with no unnecessary flair and fairly straightforward – especially if we keep in mind that this is a Japanese film we’re talking about – and the main cast delivered them all to the dot. Masterful editing serves as an extra cinematic layer, above the noir hues and lighting that add to the sombre mood of the film. The editing especially comes to the fore as Misumi and Shigemori converse through the reflective glass of the prison’s visitor room, where the camera angle helps slowly mold their reflections together, physically blurring the lines between the two.
Yes, classic Kore-eda The Third Murder is not. But that doesn’t make the film any less good – in fact, it opens up a whole new level for the filmmaker to explore, and it will be interesting to see what he comes up with next.
THE THIRD MURDER, directed by Kore-eda Hirokazu, is released in UK cinemas 23rd March.
Written by Sanja Struna
All photos © 2017 FUJI TELEVISION NETWORK/AMUSE INC./GAGA CORPORATION; All rights reserved.