Asian cinema does revenge well, and already boasts many excellent films on that theme, from Shunya Ito’s Female Convict Scorpion series to Park Chan-wook’s vengeance trilogy. Tetsuya Nakashima has added one more to the list with Confessions, which equals Park’s Oldboy in the cruelty of the punishment and the sophistication of the set-up. Adapted from Kanae Minato’s best-selling novel, Confessions tells the story of teacher Yuko Moriguchi’s diabolical revenge against the two 13-year-old boys she accuses of murdering her little girl.
In a remarkable opening sequence, the soft-spoken Yuko quietly tells her rowdy class that she will leave at the end of term. She then calmly proceeds to tell them about the murder of her daughter, how she discovered that the killers were two boys from her class, and how she has already taken revenge on them. Each of her disclosures is made all the more shocking by her even tone of voice, her astonishing words finally forcing the unruly students to pay attention to her. This mesmerising sequence lasts for 30 minutes and seemingly reveals the whole plot of the film. But Yuko’s ‘confession’ is followed by a series of further confessions from other characters, the film intercutting their points of view, each revealing some new twist until we reach the culmination of the revenge story.
Brilliantly, intricately edited, often using the juxtaposition of different viewpoints and moments in time to create complex meanings, the film offers a sombre view of an immoral youth. Admittedly, there is something somewhat reactionary in the broad portrayal of young people as hopelessly self-centred, callous and insensitive, but the pessimism includes the adult characters too. There is no possibility of redemption for anyone, and social relationships are just a web of cruelty in which everyone is guilty.
Confessions picks up on the extreme sentimentality and extreme cruelty that exists in Japanese cinema, and combines them, for instance, when the bullying of one of the accused boys is turned into a fun-looking, brightly-coloured, point-scoring game on the students’ phones. Scenes of the boy’s harassment are set against images of happy young girls leaving school amid beautiful cherry blossoms and even a quirky musical number. Teenage sentimentality is specifically ridiculed: ‘Pop… the sound of something important disappearing forever’; this catchphrase, repeated with a fair amount of self-pity by one of the boys throughout the film, will be thrown back at him later by Yuko, with a devastating new meaning.
Dominated by blue-ish tones and making frequent use of fish-eye shots and distancing low and high angles, Confessions feels like a disturbing dream. Characters recount terrible misdeeds in strangely detached voices, as if in a daze, and a number of scenes are filmed at a slowed down pace. The oneiric effect is emphasised by the music, which combines an emotive Radiohead ballad with atmospheric, gloomy tracks from The xx and Japanese noise band Boris, as well as ironic pop songs (‘That’s the Way I Like It’) and gentle, melancholy pieces.
In Confessions, Nakashima has toned down the stylistic exuberance that marked his Kamikaze Girls (2004) and Memories of Matsuko (2006). Those two films shared an almost insanely upbeat quality and a strong visual style based on an orgiastic use of bright colours. But where Kamikaze Girls was a light, pink cream puff of a film, there was a very bleak tale hidden in Memories of Matsuko‘s candy wrapper. In Confessions, there is no sweetness to balance the darkness, and it is Nakashima’s most accomplished film to date.