by Sam Inglis
Vengeance is mine, sayeth the Lord. Not entirely, sayeth the movies.
The vengeance film has a long, sometimes sordid, often fascinating history, and it’s a subgenre I have long found interesting due largely to the way that it allows filmmakers and actors to explore characters in extremis. This year’s outstanding entry in this subgenre is Japanese, and comes from a perhaps unexpected source.
Director Tetsuya Nakashima’s previous film, Memories of Matsuko, is a camp, sentimental, but ultimately funny and moving, technicolor musical, more redolent of Francois Ozon than Park Chan-wook and 180 degrees different in style, look and subject matter from this dark work. In fact the difference is so marked that I wondered whether Nakashima had had the world’s first successful personality transplant between films.
That said, Confessions, like Matsuko and Nakashima’s debut Kamikaze Girls, doesn’t fit easily into any genre box. Where most vengeance movies are about a single journey to revenge (think of Thriller: A Cruel Picture, or Lady Vengeance), Nakashima takes the time to examine the events leading up to and stemming from the central crime from several angles, offering complex portraits of characters who, in another movie, might just become incidental victims on the main character’s road to ultimate vengeance.
The film begins in an uncharacteristically quiet way for a vengeance movie: with a teacher talking to her class. Over the course of a hypnotic opening thirty minutes, teacher Moriguchi (Takako Matsu) tells her class of thirteen year olds why she will not be returning to school after the spring holidays; two students recently murdered her four year old daughter, but the death was ruled an accident, and even if she could prosecute, little would happen due to their age. She doesn’t name the students, but instead gives their classmates enough information to work out who it was, before unveiling her revenge. The revenge is subtle, yet brutal: two of the cartons of milk the whole class has just drunk were laced with the HIV infected blood of Moriguchi’s former partner. You’d think that would be it; we’ve seen the commission of the crime, we know who did it, and an especially nasty sort of vengeance – one that may take years to be fulfilled – has been wrought. As I sat in the cinema the first time I saw the film I began to wonder… where the hell can Nakashima go from here?
Discovering the answer to that question is the great thrill of watching Confessions, so I shan’t get heavily into the plot from here on out, but I want to try and give you a sense of why this film had an impact on me, and why I am again writing about it now, 11 months after its initial UK release. Well, almost every time I go to the movies, whatever I happen to be seeing, there’s always something that doesn’t work – which is understandable, films are such a big undertaking that you can understand when one of the part doesn’t work or fit as well as the others might – but the really striking thing about Confessions, which is a film of parts, is how well every one of its constituent elements works.
Something that was clear in Nakashima’s earlier films was that he has an extraordinary visual sense, and that remains true, but he almost seems to have inverted the look he used for Memories of Matsuko with this film. Gone is the Amelie-like soft focus and bright colour, and in its place we have pin sharp darkness, a greying of colour and frequent use of slow motion. The slow motion is interesting, because I’m not sure there’s a more abused technique in cinema, and it’s certainly earning its bad name courtesy of the likes of Michael Bay and Zack Snyder, but Nakashima’s use of it draws more from Lars Von Trier’s recent work, slowing time to the point that the film frequently seems to become a moving painting. Nakashima wants us to explore every detail of his frames, and with good reason, because those frames are impeccably crafted. It also seems to me that the slow motion is about registering the gravity of every moment, even those that seem small to begin with; appreciating how a forced kiss brings Shuya (Yukito Nishii) and Mizuki (Ai Hashimoto) together, or how an attempt by a teacher to bring the class together excludes Mizuki. All these little moments end up contributing to the way events unfold, and Nakashima’s technique brings that home vividly.
Alongside the visuals the film is given added impact by an evocative soundtrack, combining a Sigur Ros-like score by Toyohiko Kanahashi with tracks by Radiohead (whose Last Flowers is brilliantly used) and Japanese noise merchants Boris. This patchwork covers much of the film, but it’s used not to instruct us how to feel, rather to underline what the film is already doing, to make it hit harder.
Unusually – a word I can use with relative abandon about this film – Confessions digs more deeply into those against whom vengeance is sought, rather than the person who is seeking it. Takako Matsu is excellent in the film’s first half hour, establishing a steely and unsentimental character, but one whose pain is also plain to see. However, after this the film takes time to explore the other characters, to explore their pain, not to excuse, but perhaps to understand, their actions. The performances are striking all round. Yoshino Kimura (whose highest profile role for Western audiences was in Fernando Mierelles’ Blindness, meaning that she might be a familiar face to about three people) has a tiny role as the mother of one of the killers, her denial of his actions and her terror at the way her son reacts after his teacher’s revenge – retreating from his family, screaming endlessly, and paranoid about them touching anything he has touched – is genuinely moving.
That said it is the juvenile performers who impress most. Kaoru Fujiwara is strong as the more passive of the killers, but he has less screentime and therefore less impact than the other young leads. Mastermind Shuya and his eventual girlfriend Mizuki are probably the most interesting characters in the film, both with deep seated issues. These would be tough roles for experienced adult actors, let alone 13 year old debutants but Yukito Nishii (all outward detachment covering for barely beneath the surface hurt) and Ai Hashimoto (perhaps more chilling, with a character who is cold eyed and somewhat amoral, at least until a pivotal moment towards the end of the film) both acquit themselves brilliantly.
The irritating thing about writing about Confessions is that I can’t tell you about the moment that hits hardest and lasts longest. What I can tell you is that it is simultaneously the film’s most brutal and most beautiful moment (two things Nakashima unites throughout), thanks to the film’s longest and most impactful use of super slow motion. It’s an act of intensely personal destruction, and we see it as if through Shuya’s eyes, as the sheer enormity hits home. Most vengeance films come with closure guaranteed; the guilty are punished, the wronged walk away, righteous in their vengeance. Confessions doesn’t feel like that, and you could feel the discomfort in the silent cinema, as questions of justice hung unanswered in the air. We want to walk away from films like this and feel at ease. Confessions doesn’t give us that. Confessions feels like a 106 minute punch to the gut, and yes, that’s a recommendation. Most films stay with me for minutes, a few hang around for hours, but I’m still thinking about Confessions; about the contradictions it creates, about the characters, and whether any of them could be – should be – saved from themselves (a question that sticks just as much to Moriguchi as to the people who killed her child).
So that’s ultimately why Confessions is my pick of the best theatrical release of 2011. 11 months and about 200 theatrical films since I first saw it, it’s still in my head. Images have stayed with me, as have whole sequences, but most specifically the feeling of it still feels immediate and raw whenever I think about it. That’s a good movie.
My top ten, in alphabetical order:
Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows Part 2
Love Like Poison
The Tree of Life