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There’s something sinister happening in Oiso, a dead-end town on the Pacific coast, though good luck deducing what it is from Takuya Misawa’s “The Murders of Oiso.” Running at a pithy 79 minutes but in no hurry to get anywhere, this artfully inscrutable rural noir keeps teasing you to imagine the awful things that might be happening just off screen.

While the director’s debut, “Chigasaki Story” (2014), was a whimsical homage to the films of Yasujiro Ozu, his second feature owes more to the fractured narratives of Nicolas Roeg. This Japan-South Korea-Hong Kong co-production deflects you at every turn, and while some (this viewer included) will treat it as a riddle waiting to be solved, others are liable to find the whole thing maddeningly oblique.

The story revolves around a quartet of old high-school friends — Shun (Koji Moriya), Tomoki (Haya Nakazaki), Eita (Shugo Nagashima) and Kazuya (Yusaku Mori) — who now work for the construction company owned by the Kazuya’s family. They’re still young men, but it seems like the best years of their lives are already behind them. When they aren’t working, which is most of the time, they’re off smoking, playing cards or committing the odd act of low-level thuggery, in a society where everybody appears to be on the take.

The Murders of Oiso (Aru Satsujin, Rakuyo no Koro Ni)
Rating
Run Time 79 mins.
Language Japanese
Opens Feb. 20

Kazuya, a pudgy bully with dead, coal-black eyes, seldom misses an opportunity to pull rank on his pals. But the group’s dynamic is thrown off-balance when his uncle dies in a freak gardening accident, and the local community discovers that the deceased had secretly married a younger woman.

As the family fights over the inheritance, Shun quietly starts an affair with the uncle’s widow. However, Kazuya’s jealousy over the cozy relationship Eita is enjoying with girlfriend Saki (Ena Koshino) threatens to cause bigger complications.

Beyond that, it’s hard to say exactly what happens in “The Murders of Oiso.” Misawa shares editing duties with the movie’s producer, Hong Kong indie filmmaker Wong Fei Pang, and they appear to have been aiming for obfuscation rather than clarity. The director himself features in a tricksy framing device, while a female narrator adds a further layer of confusion.

The central cast members are handsome enigmas — Mori’s Kazuya being the notable exception, in a performance that radiates violence and deep-seated insecurity. Though one of the characters finds a dead body, I’m honestly not sure I could say who it belonged to.

Perhaps that’s the message of the film: that people would rather not know. It’s certainly true when an act of sexual violence takes place, only to be downplayed and then concealed by the others, with a callousness that’s chillingly believable.

Moments like these defuse the criticism that the film is more style than substance, though it’s certainly stylish. Cinematographer Timliu Liu conjures a succession of striking compositions, while Eiji Iwamoto’s sparse electric guitar soundtrack maintains the downcast mood.

What, though, to make of the film’s ending, which seems to pull the cheapest trick in the screenwriting book? After everything that’s come before, it feels like a feint. A brief post-credits sequence hints that “The Murders of Oiso” may not have been a maze, but a Mobius strip. Even given a second chance, these characters would be condemned to go on repeating the same mistakes.

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