Dir: Tetsuya Nakashima
Acclaimed Japanese director Tetsuya Nakashima's latest is the first of his films that I've seen. It will not be the last.
Confessions is, in generic terms, closest to being a revenge thriller, but putting it in a box like that is almost an insult. It begins with a teacher (Takako Matsu) addressing her class of 12 and 13 year olds. She tells them this is her last day of teaching, and then drops a bombshell; her four year old daughter was murdered by two of these students, and she's going to take revenge, because Japan's juvenile responsibility laws will protect the killers otherwise. This is her confession. The film then unfolds with further confessions from various other characters, going back and forth in time as it views the events from several different perspectives.
The opening of Confessions is utterly extraordinary, it's almost a self contained short film, a mini masterwork of its own, much like the Omaha beach sequence in Saving Private Ryan, as with that film the question then becomes; how can the film possibly live up to this? Where Saving Private Ryan came up empty, Confessions has an answer: 'Like THIS!' Nakashima seems to say, juggling perspectives and timelines and throwing up ever more shocking moments up until the film's shattering, jaw dropping, denouement.
As well as teacher Moriguchi the film focuses on three students. There are the two murderers; Shuya (Yukito Nishii) and Naoki (Kaoru Fujiwara) and Shuya's girlfriend Mizuki (Ai Hashimoto), and there is also an important role for Naoki's Mother (Yoshino Kimura, who Western audiences may remember from Fernando Mierelles' Blindness). Each of these characters offers their own confession, their own spin on events both before and after the central murder. Happily the performances are exceptional all round, perhaps especially from the young leads (who, refreshingly, actually are the age they're playing). These are complex roles for young actors, each has multiple layers; faces and motives they show to the world and those they keep hidden, it's a testament to both the actors and director Nakashima that there's never a false note struck.
The best work in the film probably comes from Yukito Nishii, who makes Shuya both utterly chilling and convincingly vulnerable, and it's vital that you believe both for the ending to have any hope of working. Ai Hashimoto is also excellent; all sweetness and light just barely masking contempt for the world and its people.
Confessions is a 106 minute display of virtuosity by Tetsuya Nakashima. It is an exceptionally beautiful film. Much of what Nakashima is filming is rather mundane, but his framing is always exceptional and the heavy use of slow motion, especially in sequences with rain, is stunning. The compositions in the film range from amusing (the students popping into frame to sing That's the Way I Like It) to images that are much more difficult; some violent, some simply haunting, all rendered in Nakashima's cold, steely, colour scheme. Startling as the visuals can be (and a slow motion shot towards the end of the film is, frankly, jaw dropping) This is not some abstract artists film, it's a constantly twisting thriller that just keeps on surprising and shocking us. Both times I've seen it the cinema has been deadly silent as the end credits rolled, the audience trying to collect their thoughts. That's a testament to how strong the characterisations and plotting are in Nakashima and Kanae Minato's screenplay.
It's also well worth mentioning the soundtrack, as through a mix of bands like Radiohead and Japanese noise merchants Boris and original score that often sounds suspiciously like Sigur Ros, the film creates an almost omnipresent undertow of sound that pulls you into it's world, without instructing you how you should feel at any given moment.
Confessions was a thrill for me, I never knew where it was going next, just that I could trust that it was going to do something pretty extraordinary. The ending certainly lives up to that promise, delivering an unexpected - but plausible - gut punch in the film's final minutes. This is the first great film of 2011, and it's going to take something pretty special to beat it this year.