Adapted from the award winning debut novel by Kanae Minato, still high on the sugar-coated ripples of critical acclaim with his previous features Kamikaze Girls and Memories Of Matsuko, genre-busting auteur Tetsuya Nakashima returns like a scalded cat with Confessions. Gone are his trademark candy-coloured worlds, replaced by a sinister universe contaminated by disease, bullying and murder. Will Nakashima’s delicious new direction hit the sweet spot once again, or will it leave the audience with sweet Fanny Adams?
Yuko Moriguchi (Takako Matsu) is a middle-school teacher whose 4-year-old daughter is found dead in the school’s swimming pool. Convinced that two of her students were responsible for her daughter's murder she returns to her classroom and begins a final lesson the students will never forget.
Referring to the killers as Student A and Student B, Yuko’s ramblings are at first treated as tommyrot by the children half listening to her inane drivel. Then she reveals that two of the cartons of milk they had been drinking prior to her arrival have been laced with the HIV infected blood of her dead child’s father.
Confessions spill quicker than the milk, as each suspect reveals motives, allies, and a disturbing lack of sympathy. Will Yuko be satisfied with their acceptance of blame, knowing only too well that they aren’t old enough to be truly punished for their actions, or will she decide to end her teaching career by going out with a bang?
All films should be this pretty. Exploring the dark side of adolescence with wit and delicacy, Confessions creates a disturbingly bleak atmosphere that more than compensates for a sparse plot, further complimented by an indie soundtrack and stunning visuals by Director Tetsuya Nakashima. A film more about mood than substance, ordinary teen irritants are blended with the extreme so seamlessly here it’s frightening, as we see when, early on, Student A (a chilling turn by Yukito Nishii as Shuya) reveals his unrivalled genius by creating contraptions to torture cats and dogs and another electrifying invention to stop purse snatchers.
The other students may be flirting with the opposite sex and questioning the joys of puberty, but apart from an orchestrated fling half way through proceedings, Shuya is far too busy devising ways to inflict pain and suffering on those that have failed to spot his superiority, praying the mother that abandoned him finally will. Meanwhile, Student B (Naoki) is so disgusted with himself for allowing his trust to be abused, he accepts his punishment, takes it on the chin, then spends the rest of the film transforming into a caveman, intent on scrubbing away any past mistakes, his mud-encrusted body a constant reminder of the horrors that fell before.
It’s certainly a haunting tale that will linger long in the memory, helped by a dry sense of humour running all the way through it (the students rendition of KC Band’s ‘That’s The Way I Like It’ is absolutely brilliant), with gruesomeness and giggles combining perfectly, culminating in a genuinely explosive denouement. Takako Matsu’s performance as the scarred teacher is deftly restrained: her intense opening monologue is so gripping you’ll question how thirty minutes have zipped by. But Nakashima masters such a lengthy confession with ease, cutting to cold and harsh visual flashbacks, classroom mayhem and a self-contained story so beautiful it’s almost a disappointment when the new term begins.
With a script that feels like it’s followed Robert McKee’s best-selling book ‘Story’ to the letter, Confessions uses the principles of screenwriting to great effect - especially in the way of structure, with its perfectly placed inciting incident and rollercoaster second act leading to the chilling climax. Clearly helped by an artist who has already mastered the form, Nakashima soaks Kanae Minato’s script in such lush imagery you’ll gladly drown in its dreamy slo-mo sequences (at its stunning best in the pouring rain), entwined with wide-eyed acts of violence that will make the journey uncomfortable but compelling. The violence may not always be graphic in nature, upsetting any gore hunters amongst you, but although pleasantly understated, when it does inevitably fall it certainly makes a bigger splash than the painfully poetic demise of Yuko’s daughter.
Without showing anything overtly, Confessions projects an atmosphere of palpable evil and menace with minimal locations and fuss. Fine-tuned characterizations help a plot structure that could become confusing if not dealt with so brilliantly, but this sophisticated shocker is slightly let down only by the plot’s thinness. It's not a massive problem. In the end, it allows Nakashima to intersect the action with some wonderful sequences (helped along by cracking melodies from Radiohead, The XX and Japanese superstars Boris), each subtle moment adding depth to plot, characters and backstory with superb realism, never allowing the viewer's mind to wander.
This, of course, is also a horror, so add to all this gripping drama the countless memorable scenes that surprise with their sudden brutality (Shuya cutting himself in class to terrify the haters or the cuteness and impending doom of a kitten with its mother), mix in some brilliant performances, especially by the children (it’s easy to see why whippersnappers are often treated badly in Asian cinema – who in their right mind would want to teach this lot), and it’s obvious the only confession this movie needs to make is that it will blow you away.
Certain to be remade by a Hollywood studio, bursting with inventive visuals and a slew of nasty surprises, Confessions is a beautiful piece of work harmonized with a cracking soundtrack, brilliant screenplay and wonderful performances. Put simply, the best film of 2011. DW