Confessions -- Film Review

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BUCHEON, South Korea -- The cruelty that young teens are capable of and the amoral prurience of Japanese society portrayed in Tetsuya Nakashima "Confessions" will deliver a shock to the system of any audience. Even more electrifying is the punishment meted out by the teacher-protagonist to her students for a callous crime. Cynical, anarchic and impeccably crafted, this revenge thriller with a socially caustic twist on the image of the mater dolorosa offers no respite in tension, no redemption for any character and an ending that is as merciless as it is a satisfying payoff.

The film impressed buyers in Cannes and sold to major territories. On Japanese home ground, it kept the boxoffice top spot for four consecutive weeks, raking in well over $30 million. "Confessions" won the Jury Choice Award at Puchon International Fantastic Film Festival and is being wooed by at least 20 other fests. The original story from Kanae Minato's six-part serial novel (Japan's number one best-seller in 2010) is itself so lapel-grabbing that it is ripe for remake.

"Confessions" begins with teacher Yuko Moriguchi's (Takako Matsu) farewell speech to a class of rowdy junior high students on the day she quits. She gives a lecture on the value of life but it segues into disclosures about her personal history, which takes an increasingly harrowing turn.

She accuses two students from her class, science prodigy Shuya (Yukito Nishii) and wimpy loner Naoki (Kaoru Fujiwara), of murdering her 5-year-old daughter Manami. At 14, they are protected by the law, but Moriguchi settle scores her way. Let's just say the kids learn it's no use crying over spilt milk. Not many commercial films dare to open with a static 25-minute monologue but the air of suspense and ingenuity of the dramatic reversals keep one transfixed.

One year on, a slew of confessions appear, by Naoki's mother (Yoshino Kimura), suicidal teenage misfit Mizuki (Ai Hashimoto), Naoki and Shuya. Subjective and contradictory perspectives emerge about the delinquents' motives and their mother complexes. The only thing they have in common is the speaker's self-absorption and apathy to others' suffering. Inter-related incidents of youth atrocities at school, on blogs and on the news intensify the sense of social atrophy.

Despite the script's liberties with the text, like reshuffling the order of the confessions and adding scenes that explain the causality of actions, the "Rashomon"-like structure remains overwrought. However, finale is superbly executed, pulling the rug from under the audience by redefining everything said before about life and its worth. The film's creators claim influence by Park Chan-wook's "Vengeance Trilogy," but revenge is more cerebral and psychological here.

To suit the subject matter, Nakajima adopts a style so antithetical to his former hyperkinetic, riotously colorful and emotionally gushing works ("Kamikaze Girls," "Memories of Matsuko" and "Paco and the Magical Book") it is as if Versace has traded his bling wardrobe for Yohji Yamamoto's minimalist chic.

The student uniforms and drab school interiors form harsh compositions of monochromatic blacks and grays against dour whites. Exaggerated slow motions render profane, even brutal actions as graceful as dance. Expressions of thought or feeling are controlled (epitomized by Moriguchi's consistently polite words and unperturbed voice.)

This glacially austere yet irresistibly cinematic style consciously jars with the extremities depicted on screen, while closely mirroring the film's barren moral landscape. GGI is used sparingly and atmospherically as a visual trope, notably recurrent images of cloudy skies which change from gloomy and overcast to bright baby blue as the film progresses -- a homage to Gus van Sant's "Elephant".

The music, inspired by Pink Floyd's "The Wall" in spirit, uses such eclectic sources as Bach, the teen pop group AKB48 and Radio Head to create a cool, surreal mood.

Venue: Puchon International Fantastic Film Festival
Production: Presented by "Confessions" Film Partners, Toho Film Production Department, Kuriku.
Sales: Toho Company Ltd.
Cast: Takako Matsu,Yoshino Kimura, Yukito Nishii, Kaoru Fujiwara, Ai Hashimoto, Masaki Okada.
Director/screenwriter: Tetsuya Nakashima.
Based on the novel by: Kanae Minato.
Producers: Genki Kawamura, Yuji Ishida, Yutaka Suzuki, Yoshihiro Kubota.
Executive producer: Minami Ichikawa.
Director of photography: Shoichi Ato, Atsushi Ozawa.
Production designer: Towako Kuwashima.
Music: Toyohiko Kanebashi.
Editor: Yoshiyuki Koike.
No rating, 107 minutes.
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