Watch enough foreign language movies and you’re bound to develop some (usually incorrect) perception of that particular country’s citizens. Korean people are more likely to kick you than they are to smile. French folks will cheat on each other at the drop of a pastry. There are no schools for acting in Thailand. You get the idea. Japanese films are no different and in fact offer up more than one assumption about the culture. And no, they don’t all have to do with lactation or the enticing aroma of girls’ underwear.
Some are about the overwhelming fear that Japanese society appears to have towards its own children. The youth of the nation are alternately dangerous to others (Battle Royale) or to themselves (Suicide Club), but the one constant is the complete lack of connection or understanding the adults have for their teenage counterparts.
It’s an intriguing idea and one writer/director Tetsuya Nakashima (Kamikaze Girls) has decided to embrace with his latest movie, Confessions. His film is far more subtle than those mentioned above, but no less dangerous or dark, and he melds it seamlessly with another popular theme in Asian cinema…
“This is my revenge.”
Miss Moriguchi (Takako Matsu) stands before an unruly classroom and announces that this will be her last day as their teacher. Celebration erupts from some students, stunned silence from others, but she continues to speak in the same calm manner as she explains her motivation. These children are selfish, callous, and cruel towards each other with no regard for what’s right and wrong, and their out of control behavior has now claimed a life. It seems Moriguchi’s four-year-old daughter died recently, and while it was ruled an accident she believes otherwise. She claims it was murder… and the killers, identified only as Student A and B, are sitting in that very classroom.
The teacher ends her monologue with the confession that she’s already exacted her revenge on the guilty parties in the form of HIV-infected blood injected into their recently emptied milk cartons. A perfect short film could end right there, but Nakashima is just getting started. Moriguchi’s action sets in motion a devastating chain of events as the teens become convinced they know the culprits’ identities and the suspects begin their own downward spirals as a result of the attention. The film shifts perspective as others begin to offer confessions of their own regarding the details of the little girl’s death and other malicious thoughts and actions.
Nakashima’s film is a fairly brutal indictment of a youth culture that feels alternately entitled, depressed, and occasionally sociopathic. The students consistently point the finger of blame at teachers, parents, and classmates, at everyone but themselves it seems. Compassion and individuality are in short supply in their ranks, but lest you think this is simply an attack on the younger generation the adults on display don’t come off all that much better. In addition to the one grasping at revenge against two thirteen-year-olds, there are parents who abandon their children or smother them with concern, teachers who blind themselves to reality in an effort to be accepted by their wards, and an adult society in general that has passed laws making it impossible to truly hold youth offenders accountable.
The dark and disturbing themes of the film are matched with an almost universally tinted blue/gray filter that depresses the mood even further. There are brief escapes into the sunlit world, but most of the action plays out in a world drowned of warmth. Adding to the stylish and dream-like quality are numerous slow-motion shots and an ethereal score that collectively serve to lull viewers in with a subdued beauty and calm even as any hope for happiness and redemption slowly suffocate beneath the weight of it all. It’s like strangling kittens with muted rainbows.
This was Japan’s Oscar submission for Best Foreign Language film last year, but before that Nakashima was best known for the bright one-two punch of Kamikaze Girls and Memories Of Matsuka. Both films share a visual style reminiscent of an explosion at a Crayola factory, and while Matsuka goes to some very dark places it does so behind a multi-colored sheen of light, perceived happiness, and musical numbers. Aside from being filmed with style and grace there’s no such attempt at a facade with Confessions. This is the darkest film of the director’s career, but in many ways it’s also his most stunning and beautiful.
Confessions is a soul-crushing slowburn of a film that offers up ruthless observations on the cruel ties between victims and bullies, the grief-stricken and the guilty, and the emotional morass between blame and responsibility. On a brighter note, it’s a daydream turned nightmare that digs into your heart like a slow-motion stabbing. See how I lied about the brighter note? The film does offer a brief sliver of hope for humanity (depending on your your own level of optimism), but as one character fears aloud his actions and their consequences just might signify “the sound of something important disappearing forever.”
The Upside: Sharply written revenge tale; incredibly stylish and beautifully shot; engaging story that rewards even after the killers’ identities are revealed; fantastic ending; wonderfully disturbing
The Downside: Methodical pacing and overt style will not appeal to some viewers
Buy Confessions on Blu-ray from YesAsia