Tetsuya Nakashima returns with his newest ... and how. Forget everything you ever thought you knew about this man and let yourself be swept away by his latest feature, Confessions [Kokuhaku]. The film didn't make the final cut for the Oscars this year, but for obvious reasons. All of them positive by the way. Confessions is without a doubt Nakashima's masterpiece and only a few steps short from absolute perfection, so sit back and enjoy the ride.
Nakashima (Paco And The Magical Picture Book, Kamikaze Girls, Memories Of Matsuko) has build himself a solid reputation over the years, crowning him the Japanese king of colorful fantasy/comedy pictures. Sure, each of these films featured a darker or more dramatic edge right beneath the surface, but his oeuvre is very much uplifting and cheerful. It was only a matter of time though before he would let the darkness out and Confessions proved to be a perfect opportunity.
The film is a pretty pure mix of genre (revenge) cinema and social commentary. While the raw effect of each stretch is obviously blunted by the other, the mix comes with a whole new bang effectively making up for this apparent loss of impact. Confessions is essentially a revenge flick, but the revenge feels cold, bitter and heartless, not at all fulfilling. For a pure social commentary the film is too stylized and unrealistic, but in such a way that that it still leaves you thinking about both the social aspects and the somewhat unethical fun of revenge flicks. Once you accept this blend of styles and intentions, there is nothing standing in the way of 100 minutes pure cinematic excellence.
Confessions starts with an impressive 30 minute intro, meticulously revealing the bottom line of the film. A young female teacher is quitting her job after finding out that her daughter's death was no mere accident, but premeditated murder by two of her very own students. As the boys haven't reached the age of 14 yet they are protected by the Japanese law and they cannot be punished, so she has to find more creative ways to get back at them. And believe me, she does.
Nakashima has gradually developed a technical excellence he can be proud of, but strangely enough he still keeps on improving with each film. Paco looked fabulous, but that's nothing compared to the visual stimulation coming from Confessions. Each single shot is a small work of art, there is no room for chance or luck. Tetsuya uses a dark black/blue color palette which is only occasionally left behind in favor of more naturalistic colors and handycam work. It all looks equally stunning though.
The soundtrack deserves major credit too. Very atmospheric music that is closely tailored to the editing within each scene. The intro is a superb example of audiovisual film making, with sounds dropping left and right, only to return after sharp cuts and change of perspectives. I wouldn't have minded if the whole film had played in that single classroom, it was that dense and gripping.
The acting is stellar, with Takako Matsu leading the pack. She portrays the teacher with an icy sense of anger that's quite simply frightening. Also nothing but praise for the rest of the young cast. They play an important part in making the rather far-fetched story believable, to the point where Matsu's revenge starts to feel somewhat justified. Quite a feat for such a young group of actors.
After the 30-minute intro the film continues with a more in-depth look at the motivations of the killers, revealing some pretty interesting subplots. Slowly Matsu's revenge takes front stage and the plot starts to unfold in a rather challenging way. Can a teacher take the law in her own hands, brooding on revenge targeted at a bunch of minors, even if they did kill her only daughter. Especially considering the fact she's not just giving them a tap on the hands, but goes through serious lengths getting back at them in the harshest ways possible.
So is the film without fault? Ironically, after a 100 minute display of impressive technical, emotional and narrative force Nakashima slips up in the two final lines of dialogue, choosing a somewhat cheap ambiguous ending rather than going for the full unrelenting blow. Not that I don't like ambiguous endings, I just don't like cheap tricks to force them (think Inception or Shutter Island). Not that it destroys the whole film, but it does prevent it from reaching a full score.
That said, Confessions is definitely one of the best 2010 films I've seen so far. It's an audiovisual masterpiece, bearing an interesting plot, powerful emotions and some poignant social commentary. Nakashima keeps growing with every film, improving on every level. Already one of my favorite directors, I can't wait to see what he'll come up with next. Absolutely recommended, if you see only one Japanese film a year, make sure it's this one.