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Japanese writer director Tetsuya Nakashima follows up his critically acclaimed cult hits “Kamikaze Girls” and “Memories of Matsuko” with something considerably darker in the form of “Confessions”. Based upon Kanae Minato’s award winning debut novel and dealing with themes of bullying, revenge and savage murder, the film is an exceptionally cruel affair, all the more so thanks to Nakashima’s typically idiosyncratic approach and gorgeous visuals. The film has been a massive hit in Japan, both commercially and critically, and has already been selected as the country’s official entry in the Best Foreign Film category of the 83rd Annual Academy Awards. The film has also been enjoying success at international festivals, having recently had its UK premiere at the 2010 London October Frightfest.
The film is essentially an ensemble piece, revolving around Takako Matsu (recently in “K20: Legend of the Mask” and “Villon’s Wife”) as Yuko Moriguchi, a teacher whose three year old daughter is found drowned in the school’s swimming pool. As she reveals at the start of the film when announcing her imminent retirement, she knows the identity of the two killers, who are in fact two teenage boys from her middle school class. With the police having dismissed the case as an accident, she puts into motion an intricate plan of revenge and psychological warfare designed to utterly destroy their lives and to force them to realise the impact of their actions.
Tetsuya Nakashima is one of the few genuine auteurs to be working in cinema today, and as such, it shouldn’t be too much of a surprise to hear that “Confessions” is a film which defies genre expectations and which refuses to play out along conventional lines. Whilst the subject matter is considerably darker than his last couple of outings, the film is immediately recognisable as being in Nakashima’s style, and it should be remembered that prior to the success of “Kamikaze Girls”, he had tackled grim material before with “Beautiful Sunday”, and bullying with “Happy Go Lucky”. Here, he delivers what is certainly one of the bleakest and disturbing films of recent years, revolving entirely around human weakness, arrogance and cruelty. The film begins with incredibly intensity as Yuko delivers a shattering speech to her uninterested class, which immediately thrusts the viewer into uncomfortable and unknown territory, as she not only announces the identity of the two killers, but proceeds to make it clear that she herself is about as far as from a righteous revenge seeking heroine as it is possible to get.
This sets the scene perfectly for the rest of the film, which rather than focusing upon her and her vengeance, shifts between a variety of different characters who all in one way or another have been involved in or affected by her daughter’s death. Since this naturally involves the killers themselves, it takes the film to some very dark places indeed, unflinchingly exploring the human psyche and propensity to prey upon the weak. Yuko’s plan, made all the more awful for the fact that it relies so coldly upon the latent callousness and sadism of her class to unwittingly carry it out, makes for gripping viewing, especially during the incredible tension of the final act, though the viewer is at no time overtly manipulated into sympathising with her.
Indeed, Nakashima goes some way to providing a cold, but horribly human and believable depiction of all his characters, never casting a judgemental eye and laying equal responsibility for the chaotic and self destructive society at the heart of the film at the feet of the teachers, the students and parents. This inevitably gives the film a disturbingly amoral feel, not least since it openly eschews any hope of redemption, personal development, or even of catharsis, right through to its explosive conclusion. By constructing such a convincing world of savagery, the film makes for one of the most engaging and bleak revenge themed efforts in recent memory, even more perfect and hard hitting in its coffin black coldness than Park Chan Wook’s classic “Sympathy for Mr Vengeance”.
However, with downbeat tales of gritty payback still enjoying great popularity, its Nakashima’s direction and handling of the film which really makes it stand out. Although it might have been expected that he would have toned down the visual style and wild techniques that characterised his last couple of films, here he simply adapts them to the material. Adding to this is a very involved soundtrack, featuring the likes of Radiohead, acclaimed Japanese experimental rock band Boris, and this year’s Mercury Prize winners, The XX, which at times does take it into music video territory. As might be expected, Nakashima does mine the drama for irony and a certain amount of humour, of the blackest kind, and the film is frequently very funny, in suitably bitter fashion, even managing to work in a musical number of sorts. These moments do offset the tone somewhat, balanced skilfully with some pretty intense scenes of violence and sudden flashes of gore, most of which have all the more impact for being delivered without any real ceremony or build up.
Surprisingly, this approach works very well, helping to create an otherworldly, at times almost theatrical feel which adds a hint of satire and makes the film’s social commentary and reflection even more effective. The film is quite stunning in places, packed with gorgeously overblown imagery that with a use of dark and light, and more importantly of dull grey that immaculately fits its themes. Though the overall effect is a multi layered assault on the senses, at times Nakashima may well go too far for some viewers, as he tempts the attention away from the horror of the proceedings, lovingly coating the malevolence with seductive sugar, highlighting the way that the smiling faces of the characters and of society in general are hiding awful secrets and desires.
Although its chances of an Oscar in 2011 are debatable, “Confessions” is easily one of the year’s best films, and another masterpiece from Tetsuya Nakashima, surely pushing him from being a mere cult favourite to a director of real note. Due to its subject matter and flashy visual content, the film may well not be for audiences of all tastes, though for those willing to brave its emotional express elevator to hell, it makes for stunning and devastating viewing.
Tetsuya Nakashima (director) / Kanae Minato (based on the novel by), Tetsuya Nakashima (screenplay)
CAST: Takako Matsu … Yuko moriguchi
Masaki Okada … Yoshiteru terada
Yoshino Kimura … Naoki’s mother