FILM REVIEW: The Third Murder

As I was walking to the train station with my girlfriend the other day, I turned to her and said, “Hey, remember that I’m going out tonight, so I’ll get something to eat in town.”

She looked at me with the cold-stink eye. It was so cold that later I’d need to phone my optician and ask for an ice-scraper for my glasses. It was likely reminiscent of the last gaze received by one of the companions of Perseus from Clash of The Titans before being turned to stone by the Medusa.

“You never told me you were going out tonight,” the medusa hissed through clenched teeth. “I would have taken the chicken out of the freezer to defrost this evening for myself, otherwise.”

“I did tell you. You were cooking last night and I said I was going out this evening. I even made a point of booking tickets on my phone. Remember when I said: I’m booking tickets on my phone?

The medusa’s eyes narrowed. There was disbelief there, but self-doubt was starting to creep in.

“No you didn’t.”

For half a second I was tempted to continue this never-ending nightmare loop, which would soon descend into an argument about arguing –  but with disagreements with my girlfriend, I might as well hurl my shoes in the air to knock clouds out of the sky. I usually get bored, or one of us comes to our senses. Or a little piece of my soul dies and I concede defeat. But this time was different. This time, I knew I was right.

Or…was I?

Because now self-doubt was starting to slip into my mind like a rambunctious, amorous eel.

The Third Murder is a lot like this. It’s opaque and puzzling because you’ll second guess yourself constantly. You’ll watch unreliable characters give versions of stories that you’ll be jostling around in your head like an erratic clothes washer long after the film has ended to decide who’s telling the truth. When you’ve made up your mind about a character’s intentions, a new piece of information will make you question everything you’ve just confirmed as fact. Even at the end, I think I knew what actually happened, but there was a sense of self-doubt regarding the symbolism implicated within the film that made me re-think my opinions.

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The Third Murder starts with a brief, opening glimpse of a food factory worker called Misumi (played by the veteran Japanese actor Koji Yakusho) swinging a wrench to the back of his boss’ head as they walk along a riverbank in the dead of night. He then proceeds to cave-in the man’s skull, pouring petrol on the carcass and then setting it alight. He wipes away some blood on his cheek. The crime in question is repeated later in the film with varied differences, leaving the viewer to decide what “truly” happened, and this is the crux of the film that will divide audience members into either one of two categories: those that are intrigued with ambiguous and heavily ridden dialogue, and those that will become impatient with the psychological insights scattered throughout Hirokazu Kore-eda’s latest film.

I thoroughly enjoyed Kore-eda’s last film, ‘After the Storm,’ (2016) a tender and insightful portrayal of the relationship between parents and their children, and The Third Murder also has these underlying themes at play. But there’s a plethora of other themes running throughout the narrative, perhaps too many for the human brain to digest all in one sitting. There’s the exploitive workers angle, the Japan judicial system, what it is to be judged, what it means to be a prisoner, family dysfunctions, human nature itself…it can all be a little overwhelming.

The plotline revolves around the recently incarcerated Misumi, a seemingly simple-minded man who confesses to killing his boss at the food factory from where he was recently fired. As he has just completed a 30 year sentence for killing two other people in similar circumstances, the death sentence seems unavoidable, but defence lawyer Shigemori (played by Masaharu Fukuyama) soon discovers inconsistencies in Misumi’s confession whilst investigating the case. The victim’s daughter Sakie, is also drawn into the mix. The problem with Misumi is that he can’t keep to a single cohesive story about the events of the murder; he says that he had something to drink and felt infuriated at being fired, and then says that he was trying to steal his boss’ wallet, but then gives a tabloid interview claiming that the victim’s wife persuaded Misumi to kill him in return for a share in the life insurance. Is he deliberately and maliciously playing with his lawyers? Is he simply a dim-witted fool, akin to Lenny from Of Mice and Men that doesn’t know any better? Or is he trying to hide something else? The Third Murder won’t wrap any answers in a ribbon and hand them to you – you’ll need to draw your own conclusions as the credits roll.

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Shigemori seems initially unhappy to be dragged into defending Misumi by his older law-practice partner Settsu, concerned more about the legal strategy of the case and protecting his client rather than revealing the truth of the actual murder itself. His inquiries lead him to tracking down Misumi’s long-estranged daughter, which pulls at the emotional string involving paternal guilt running throughout The Third Murder; not only does Misumi bemoan being an absent father, (which is reflected with divorced Shigemori neglecting his own troubled daughter), the murdered boss’ teenage offspring (Suzu Hirose) turns out to have secrets of her own, with a past relationship with the murderer of her father. Capital punishment is still in the ruling book in Japan, amid mounting demands for its removal. There’s been many Hollywood films depicting the ‘wrongly convicted’ man that’s about to be sent to the electric chair, only for the protagonist to swoop in at the last minute and save the day with some irrefutable evidence clearing the suspect, but The Third Murder is more elusive than that. It’s about believing people when they tell you their account of the truth. It’s about unreliable information that’s in a constant flux of change, making you doubt yourself.

As the film progresses, Shigemori suspects he has more in common with the suspect he’s defending than he initially thought – and Hirokazu Kore-eda plays with this duality eloquently by filling the screen with their faces – lingering on either the lawyer or criminal, with the other’s reflection superimposed on the security glass, ending with a telling and lasting shot of Shigemori on the other side of the glass, becoming the blurred line of a law that ultimately prefers to safeguard its own interests rather than preserve justice.

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The pacing is deliberate and long – highlighting the perfunctory nature of Japan’s legal system, and the intricate and sometimes overly convoluted plot may put off people that just want to watch a classic ‘whoddunnit,’ type of crime caper, but if you’re in the mood for a complex tale displaying the imperfections of human nature, what it is to judge and be judged, then The Third Murder should definitely be a film worth investigating. Just don’t expect any resolutions, because you’re unlikely to find them here.

Side note: Never refer to your girlfriend as a gorgon demon – it’s only asking for your eyes to be plucked from your skull like soft peas from its pod.

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Review by Anthony Self

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