Japan's nomination for the Best Foreign Language Oscar doesn't fit the template for Oscar-friendly movies at all. Here's Michael's take on Confessions...
Directed by cult favourite, Tetsuya Nakashima (Kamikaze Girls, Memories Of Matsuko), revenge drama Confessions was recently given the seal of approval from its home film industry when it was submitted as Japan's entry for the Best Foreign Language Film category at the Academy Awards. Although, don't let that fool you. This is not a consensus-forming safe bet. No, this is rather an ugly proposition, indeed.
Initially concerned with mystery, Confessions soon finds itself lost in relentless revelation, a feature-length third act, where characters narrate motivation either before or alongside the action itself.
In a compelling, nightmarish opening sequence, a bereaved teacher (Takako Matsu) lectures her unruly class of teenage yahoos about life. Her daughter was found dead on school grounds and, worse, she believes that it was no accident, but a harsh act on the part of two of her students. So, calm, collected, and with a gentle sincerity that cuts through the rabble, she explains her plan for revenge.
In any other film, this would be a centrepiece, but in Confessions, it is merely our introduction, as Nakashima mounts his atmospheric experiment in unbroken tension and indulgent aestheticism. Early on, the teacher, with the bitter wisdom of age, tells her class "As you are aware, your minds and bodies are developing", suggesting the unpredictability of adolescent angst, which informs the film's very look and feel.
From a baseline of rich, yet dreary blue hues, somehow both beautiful and withdrawn, the image flickers to life with nostalgic flashbacks and extreme close-ups of chatty text messages. It is information overload of ADD-like proportions, forcing the viewer into the overly dramatic, hyperactive viewpoint of a still maturing mind.
As the narrative progresses through a number of ‘confessions' from the characters themselves, it touches on familiar themes, from sexuality to mortality, from identity to the friction between child and parent. However, throughout, we are kept at a distance from these characters.
The often laboured narration rarely lets us get under their skin, but Nakashima works this to his advantage, pushing the film to a surreal extreme, in the process creating a frightening concoction of evocative imagery and music.
Blood disperses in milk, feet slow-mo splash in puddles, children hack away at their parents' bodies, or each other's. All this, to a soundtrack that complements the nightmare logic, choice cuts from Radiohead and The XX craft an atmosphere of isolation, while Japanese psyche rockers Boris steal the show with their mixture of edge of sanity guitar squalls and staring into the abyss sludge. The film is at its best in these scenes, which resemble a drone metal music video, narrating the hormonal mood swings of kids gone wild.
But by most traditional yardsticks, those old chestnuts of plot, character, and development towards a satisfying conclusion, Confessions is barely a functioning film. For most of its runtime, it threatens to boil over into incoherence. Despite this, however, it is a wholly absorbing cinematic experience. One that is as likely to enthrall as it is to baffle.
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