Director: Hirokazu Kore-Eda
Cast: Masaharu Fukuyami, Koji Yakusho, Suzu Hirose, Shinnosuke Mitsushima, Mikako Ichikawa, Izumi Matsuoka, Yuki Saito, Kōtarō Yoshida, Isao Hashizume
RunTime: 2 hrs 5 mins
Rating: PG (Some Violence)
Released By: Golden Village Pictures and Clover Films
Opening Day: 11 January 2018
Synopsis: Leading attorney Shigemori takes on the defence of murder-robbery suspect Misumi who served jail time for another murder 30 years ago. Shigemori’s chances of winning the case seem low - his client freely admits his guilt, despite facing the death penalty if he is convicted. As he digs deeper into the case, as he hears the testimonies of the victim’s family and Misumi himself, the once confident Shigemori begins to doubt whether his client is the murderer after all.
Towards the end of this 125 minutes movie, a character mentions something along the lines of: “The Judge, the prosecutor and the defending attorney are all sailing on the same ship named Justice”. That perhaps sums up the complexity of Hirokazu Koreeda’s latest self-penned directorial feature, The Third Murder.
Koreeda, who made his name helming acclaimed family and social dramas including Nobody Knows and Like Father, Like Son, ditches his usual fare to tackle a legal drama that questions life morals and Japan’s criminal justice system. You know Koreeda is not going to make things easy for the audiences despite his new challenge.
A mild-mannered man, Misumi Takashi (Yakushi Koji) has confessed to robbing, killing and buring the body of his former boss along a river bank. Fukuyama Masaharu - last seen in John Woo’s Manhunt - plays a defence attorney Shigemori Tomoaki who is tasked to take over Misumi’s case from his senior partner. On the surface, the case is clear-cut and straightforward and Shigemori’s mission is to reduce Misumi’s supposedly death-penalty charge to life sentence. As the story unfolds, Misumi starts to change his testimonies, causing the seemingly infallible confident Shigemori to question Misumi’s motivations and action.
Without a single pyrotechnic, loud dramatic music cues and onscreen violence in place, Koreeda effortlessly creates a compelling drama that generously offers questions onhuman nature and who has the right to judge mere mortals like us. Do you assume Misumi is the killer based on the fact that he was sentenced to 30 years in jail for killing two loansharks decades ago? Or as what the retired judge (who happens to be Shigemori’s dad by the way) who presided the case says, he shouldn’t have allowed Misumi to escape the gallows in the first place?
At the same time, the movie reveals more twists and turns, such as a seemingly adultery affair between Misumi and the wife of his late boss and the victim’s daughter Sakie (Suzu Hirose), who decides to testify to help reduce Misumi’s sentence by revealing the fact that all along she was sexually abused by her father and perhaps Misumi was just trying to protect her. Shigemori and his assistant’s trip to icy-cold Hokkaido to interview the cop that arrested Misumi three decades prior only reveal a man that is anything but an empty vessel.
Perhaps the most powerful scenes lie with Shigemori and his client in the prison interview room with just a plexiglass inbetween. The scenes while talky are profound and enlightening. Did Misumi commits murder because he is in debt? Or rather there is more to Misumi’s motive? An angel in disguise perhaps. Does the death penalty the ultimate way to dispense justice? The movie never provides any clear, concise answers, which more or less reflects the uncertainties in life.
The only glaring fault in this drama is the depiction of Shigemori’s neglected teenage daughter. Divorced and a workaholic, Shigemori’s only time for his daughter is only when she needs his help when she got into trouble. Perhaps Koreeda is trying to connect Shigemori’s predicament with Misumi’s equally estranged daughter, though it’s merely a frail, touch-and-go attempt that is never followed up subsequently.
To be frank, The Third Murder is not as accessible as the episodes from Law and Order, in case you are expecting thrilling set pieces based on the title alone. Legal and courtroom proceedings are not even the highlight of the day. But the impressive acting - especially veteran Yakushi Koji who puts in a sizzling subtle performance - the beautiful cinematography by Koreeda’s frequent cinematographer Mikiya Takimoto and the boggling script will have you craving for more.
(Philosophical and at the same time ambiguous, The Third Murder will stay in your busy mind for a while)
Review by Linus Tee