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Confessions (2010)
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by Jay Seaver

"Drops a grenade into an explosives warehouse and watches the show."
4 stars

Tetsuya Nakashima's "Confessions" is a movie just good enough to fall through the cracks: After the director's films "Kamikaze Girls" and "Memories of Matsuko" got raves on the genre and Asian film festival circuits, the producers of this somewhat more mainstream film targeted more prestigious audiences, opting for festivals like TIFF instead of those like Fantasia, and when it didn't sell at those, it wound up never officially making its way American audiences. It is, however, worth seeking out an import disc - the one from Hong Kong is Region A and has decent English subtitles - as it's absolutely good enough to see why the producers might have seen it as a possible breakout.

It's got a bit of a rough start, in part because the first of the film's confessions seems like the set-up for a certain type of movie. In a junior high homeroom, teacher Yuko Moriguchi (Takako Matsu) announces - in a voice that barely penetrates the din from the rowdy students - that she is leaving at the end of the term, and she expects most of the students will be pleased. Their initial cheering tapers off when it becomes increasingly clear that she's got zero damns left to give, not only mocking a student who came to her for emotional support but implicating two - brilliant but cruel Shuya Watanabe (Yukito Nishii) and angry but timid Naoki Shimomura (Kaoru Fujiwara) - in the death of her four-year-old daughter Manami. She says she won't go to the police to have them reopen the case, though; she's just tainted two of the the individual cartons of milk handed out that morning with the HIV-positive blood of Manami's father.

As this plays out, Confessions has the feel of a movie that's not going to leave that room, playing out as a battle of wills between the teacher and her students, maybe with her exposing that they are all, in some way, complicit, or the the trouble-making kids showing that most of them actually have decent hearts. The film never quite finds a rhythm during this opening act, though; the students' quick reversion to rowdiness doesn't quite ring true and Nakashima is good at a lot of things, stillness and restraint are not his best tools. By the time Ms. Moriguchi has finished her story, it's clear that this confrontation can't be stretched much further.

Fortunately, Nakashima (working from a novel by Kanae Minato) doesn't play it that way - Moriguchi has dropped a grenade into the middle of an explosives warehouse and then mostly steps aside to watching it the fireworks show. The middle part of the film partially shifts to the perspective of Mizuki Kitahara (Ai Hashimoto), the student leader who gets the closest look at what happens to Shuya, Naoki, and the rest of the class in the aftermath, but it often winds up juggling four or five points of view. Telling the stories in parallel, with a little more freedom to jump back and forth in time without a strict vocal cue from the narration, lets Nakashima direct the film's energy better, changing lanes when a new perspective would benefit the film. He's good at circling back to add new perspective to a moment, even if a brief glimpse at a corpse well before the character is murdered does seem like a needless tease, and one almost wonders if he deliberately underwhelmed a bit in the early going so that when he casts aside the apparent formality of the initial classroom confrontation, the bolder visual choices he makes and increasingly unhinged, operatic action and storytelling feels more natural.

Confessions may make its nastier choices work, but it's still quite far out there at times. It seems, sometimes, that few places seem to be as frightened of their youth as Japan; this film posits not just 13-year-old murderers but seems to suggest that they're just the ones who have taken one more step than their classmates. The adults are far from off the hook - it's arguable that every horror in this movie stems from several different women being selfish failures as a mothers - but there's a dark world-view throughout the film, that maybe there is just nothing a parent can do: Being protective is enabling while being absent is motivating, and the kids that are not monsters individually become terrifying in groups.And yet, the filmmakers often find odd ways to emphasize the students' immaturity in ways that make them sympathetic; Naoki seems to regress as the film goes on, becoming less the angry tween than the scared child.

The group of young actors is strong, with both Yukito Nishii and Kaoru Fujiwara able to make their monstrous young men frightening in part because of how they feel like impulsive, misunderstood kids, while Ai Hashimoto makes a very impressive debut as Mizuki. Masaki Okada gives replacement teacher Terada just the right sort of enthusiasm to seem genuine as well as being the kind-of-buffoonish opposite of Moriguchi. It's Takako Matsu who steals the show as Yuko Moriguchi, however, putting just the right amount of acid in her soft-spoken early scenes to make her seem like someone unsuited for the job but also laying the foundation for later appearances where she's a legitimately unstoppable spirit of vengeance. Despite relatively few flashbacks that show Moriguchi as a doting mother and a hopeful teacher, Matsu lets the audience see just how thoroughly this woman's soul has been ripped out, and what someone is capable after.

It's a performance that is never the entirety of the movie - "Confessions" mostly works quite well even when Moriguchi is off to the side - but which is absolutely the thing that a viewer will remember once the film is over, even if it does take some weird turns. It's not surprising that it won four Japanese Academy Awards (including both Best Picture and Best Director and Best Screenplay for Nakashima), but it's also not hard to see how it didn't get the same traction outside of Japan: Very good cruelty doesn't travel quite so well as surprising creativity.

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originally posted: 12/31/17 09:03:06
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OFFICIAL SELECTION: 2010 New York Asian Film Festival For more in the 2010 New York Asian Film Festival series, click here.
OFFICIAL SELECTION: 2010 Toronto International Film Festival For more in the 2010 Toronto International Film Festival series, click here.

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Directed by
  Tetsuya Nakashima

Written by
  Tetsuya Nakashima

  Takako Matsu
  Masaki Okada
  Yoshino Kimura

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