Venice Film Festival: The Third Murder (Sandome No Satsujin)

Sandome No Satsujin (The Third Murder)
The Third Murder (Sandome No Satsujin)
Venezia 74
Directed by Kore-eda Hirokazu
Starring Fukuyama Masaharu, Yakusho Kōji and Hirose Suzu

by Richard Hamer

This is director Hirokazu Koreeada’s 12th feature film, but his first foray into the crime genre. While The Third Murder is not without issues in pacing and dialogue, it is still an interesting example of what an experienced director can bring to a genre outside their normal purview.

Koreeada is primarily a dramatist, concerned with how families are shaped by social structures out of their control. The Third Murder is no different: the ‘murder mystery’ itself is somewhat unimportant – in fact, that is the entire point. This is a movie concerned less with solving a crime, as it is demonstrating how the justice system doesn’t care about solving it.

A man has been killed, and mild-mannered Misumi (Kochi Yakusho) – one of the victim’s employees – has confessed to the crime. The legal defence team, led by Shigemori (Masaharu Fukuyama), has no choice but to aim low; stick to the confession, but challenge the minutiae of the prosecution case in order to get the sentence dropped from death, to life imprisonment. But as Shigemori digs deeper, he uncovers a slew of contradictory evidence, and a range of possible motives. With Misumi vague about what actually happened, the priority becomes not finding the truth, but deciding – out of a range of possible truths – what plays best in court. What will give Shigemori the result he wants?

As a critique of capital punishment (still practised in over 50 countries, including Japan) this is a highly successful work: If the jury trial is a contest of persuasive arguments, rather than a united search for the truth, then by what right does it get to judge who lives and dies? The Third Murder puts its own argument very persuasively indeed, crafting a fine sense of ambiguity in both the facts of the case, and the moral calibre of those involved. This is helped no-end by well judged, inscrutable performances from Fukuyama and Yakusho.

But such a deliberate meditation on criminal justice does not necessarily an interesting film make, and The Third Murder is often guilty of a glacial pace, and a style of filmmaking that – even by Koreeada’s standard – is almost belligerently static. This is not to say it is without any visual imagination: Some of the prison interview room scenes use memorably clever, dramatic camera work to highlight the barrier between legal truth, and real truth. However, these are the exception to the rule, with much of The Third Murder playing out in still, mid-close ups of three men talking in a room. This is a movie filled with interesting ideas, struggling to find ways to convey them interestingly.

This criticism can also be raised about the script itself. It shares with After the Storm – Koreeada’s last movie – a disappointing tendency towards overly literal dialogue, its themes often stated out-loud, to camera, like we haven’t been following. “I think everyone deserves a chance to live!” declares an earnest junior partner in the firm, overstating what didn’t need stating. It’s a disappointing blow to the otherwise stately seriousness of the film, and a problem that doesn’t appear in Koreeada’s older work: A side-effect of the frequency with which he’s been churning out movies of late, perhaps?

All of which makes The Third Murder harder to recommend than I would have thought. This is one of Japan’s premiere directors, leading one of its biggest stars in a critique of contemporary justice that is urgent and relevant. Yet where it succeeds intellectually, it fails to resonant viscerally: From a director famed for how well he portrays the subtleties of human connections, this is dour, overly serious filmmaking.

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