October 14, 2010 / 6:50 AM / 8 years ago

"Confessions" a highly stylized, powerful thriller

BUCHEON, South Korea (Hollywood Reporter) - The cruelty that teens are capable of and the amoral prurience of Japanese society portrayed in Tetsuya Nakashima’s “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 satisfying.

The film — which is Japan’s entry in this year’s foreign-language Oscar race — impressed buyers at this year’s Cannes festival and sold to major territories. On Japanese home ground, it kept the box-office top spot for four straight weeks, raking in more than $30 million. “Confessions” also won the Jury Choice Award at the 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 No. 1 best-seller this year — 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 settles scores her way. Let’s just say the kids learn it’s no use crying over spilled 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. Interrelated 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, the finale is executed superbly, pulling the rug from under the audience by redefining everything said before about life and its worth. The film’s creators say they were influenced by Park Chan-wook’s “Vengeance Trilogy,” but revenge is more cerebral and psychological here.

To suit the subject matter, Nakashima adopts a style so antithetical to his former hyperkinetic, riotously colorful and emotionally gushing works (“Kamikaze Girls,” “Memories of Matsuko,” “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 onscreen while closely mirroring the film’s barren moral landscape. CGI is used sparingly and atmospherically as a visual trope, notably recurrent images of cloudy skies that change from gloomy and overcast to bright baby blue as the film progresses — an 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 Radiohead to create a cool, surreal mood.

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