[Thanks to guest writer Giacomo for this review] Sign of the times sends mixed signals.
With Confessions, director Tetsuya Nakashima has shifted from one polar end of Japanese cinema to another, going from cutesy still-life to blood-splattered extremities. Known best for 2004′s Kamikaze Girls, the change is a jarring one, and, like his older work, not altogether successful. While his older films aimed for a kind of hip magical-realism never progressing beyond whimsy,
Confessions attempts at gory grandeur and social commentary but fails by not making most of its undeniable strengths, and losing itself in self-importance to a sadly laughable degree.
The film is an overwrought experience. AIDS, mental ills, child murder and familicide all combine to make some sort of comment that never truly makes itself clear. Hinging on the murder of a young child by schoolchildren, we seem to be in a familiar moral spill zone, that of child murderers and what kind of hand they should be dealt by society. It’s fertile ground for though-provoking cinema of course, but it’s pointless setting up a portrayal of disaffected youth when you turn one character into a bomb making maniac with body parts in the fridge whilst artfully spraying another with over-hackneyed geyser blood spurts as he stabs up his mother (and women really do get the worst of it through the whole of this bombast – what a surprise). Any serious points the film may be trying to make on whether kids are victims now out of control or otherwise become lost in the process.
Bombast is the right word for this is a film that overdoes it from the get go. We start off thrillingly as Takako Matsu’s teacher Yuko coolly builds up to a stark revelation for her pupils, that two of them were responsible for the ‘accidental’ death of her daughter. That’s enough for a whole film as it is, and the mixture of music and slow-montage as she talks feels like something vital and new.
The momentum’s lost very quickly though as we learn Yuko’s husband is a famous guru on progressive teaching, which whilst being not only very convenient for Confessions‘ passing remarks on rehabilitation and attitudes to youth, is also clunkily foreshadowed by one boy conveniently reading said guru’s book per chance in class. Just as we’re being told all about this inspirational character, we discover he’s secretly dying from AIDS within the same breath, and the ‘shocking’ climax becomes outright obvious – yes, the bereaved mother has injected the murderers’ milk cartons with his infected blood! Hm.
Whilst not only exploiting the disease for melodramatic purposes, I struggled to see why the film should suddenly concern itself with AIDS. If trying to make a comment on carriers being ostracized in society, then why do as much harm as good by then going for ‘kewl’ money shots of blood billowing rather tastefully into milk, and explaining that this particular sufferer caught the virus through travelling ‘around the world’? He certainly couldn’t have caught it in his ‘clean-living’ home country now could he, so it must have been one of them scary, dirty countries outside of Japan… If the film’s trying to say something about AIDS in Japanese society, why then ‘run away’ from Japan as its source and then barely show or mention Yuko’s husband for the rest of the film? Because, like other characters in Confessions, he’s just another cypher for more doom and gloom that tries to pass comment but ultimately leaves us with nothing.
Nakashima tacks on a message on what’s essentially an auditory-visual experience. If we look at Confessions in these terms, overlooking the plot, then the film succeeds. The soundtrack is stunning, a tapestry by avant-rockers Boris that never goes silent and submerges the screen in various shades of the emotional spectrum, a momentous ambiance. Such style matches the vivid and composed shots that admittedly do represent a huge stylistic leap in quality for Nakashima, far beyond the small-scale quiet of his textbook ‘Japanese Chekhovian’ productions. One particularly beautiful track from Boris is No Sleep Til I Become Hollow, which gnaws into your weak points as it falls with the rain over a burgeoning high school romance.
This aesthetic in sound and vision moulds Confessions into a rolling, crashing wave comparable only to Ho Tzu Nyen’s apocalyptic slow-mo heavy rock short EARTH ((((radio)))). There is no pause or let up, and yet there isn’t the hypnotism needed for the audience to overlook all the excesses in plot and drama. As I watched yet another character sob on screen, this time on their knees in the rain, I couldn’t help but laugh at it all, no matter how genuinely good the acting is. Tighter editing could have helped here, and cut off the movie where it really should have ended instead of smashing us round the face with a literally overblown scene of an explosion and a superimposed teen crying and screaming in rage within its flames. Ridiculous.
A far better attempt at something epic and relevant has to be the beloved Love Exposure, from 2008. This was a film that dealt with religion, sex and bereavement in a far more masterful way, all with a smile on its face lasting three hours that felt like far less. Confessions meanwhile lasts two hours and feels like agony stretched out over decades.
Confessions is currently showing at London’s ICA until March 17th, 2011.
Coming out on UK DVD/BR on April 25th, 2011