Confessions is a drama/horror/revenge film similar to Chan-wook Park’s excellent revenge trilogy: ‘No Sympathy for Mr. Vengeance’, ‘Oldboy’ and ‘Lady Vengeance’ or Jee-woon Kim’s ‘A Bittersweet Life’ and ‘I Saw the Devil’. Revenge films usually feature someone that has been horribly wronged and who now exists for no other reason than to get some justified but usually quite excessive and elaborately-plotted revenge. Confessions has some exceedingly excessive revenge and you know that it’s not going to stop until someone is on their knees, begging and covered in blood – and maybe not even then. No-one does this stuff like the Japanese and Koreans and though it is perhaps a little worrying that it is an entire sub-genre devoted to the comprehensive fucking-up of someone’s life, they are generally exciting, tense and often disturbing films.
Confessions reminded me of quite a few of my favourite films, such as ‘All About Lily Chou-Chou’ which is another painful dagger of a film about Japanese high school bullying – both these films also feature Japanese school kids who get dropped into situations that seem far too mature for their ages. Like All About Lily Chou Chou, Confessions is a film about the pressures on Japanese school children to conform to the demands of society clashing with their need for their own identities, individuality and recognition, and the bullying and extreme tension that accompanies this dichotomy and the desire to just be accepted.
It is also reminiscent of the seminal ‘Battle Royale’. Japanese school kids are a different breed to the school kids I knew – when I was 14 I didn’t worry about murder or head-exploding collars – maybe I was just boring: I mostly watched Blue Peter and played with my Lego. Perhaps if Japan had Blue Peter their kids wouldn’t be hacking each other apart with machetes all the time. Like Battle Royale, Confessions is about a teacher who has apparently had enough of her adorable floppy-haired sociopathic students when they go too far (and they do go too far). Confessions has the occasional blood-soaked 14 year old with a machete, but no head-exploding collars.
Finally, Confessions reminded me of manga-inspired films like Death Note and Crows Zero, though Confessions is (surprisingly I thought) not based on a manga but is based on a book. It feels very much like a manga film: it has a lot of characters and a strange, non-chronological way of framing it’s story. Confessions is directed by Tetsuya Nakashima who made the rather good Memories of Matsuko and Kamikaze Girls – films that established his visual style (if not content) as bright, colourful and occasionally quite insane. Confessions is far more muted than his previous films but uses some similar dream-like techniques and though the colour palette this time is strictly limited to desaturated blues, whites and browns it is masterfully done and is utterly beautiful to watch – it is a technical masterpiece reminiscent of David Fincher’s best work. The melancholy atmosphere is perfect: beautiful but dark, somber and sharp like a scalpel with a clinical neatness and orderliness: everything is pristine, there is never so much as a hair or colour out of place. The film has a constant underlying musical score (not something I have ever heard before, I think), including bands like Radiohead, though there are no moments like in Memories of Matsuko where everyone spontaneously bursts into song. Music is used to great effect to add to the tension and is just another element that makes the film so unique.
This is a brave and unusual film: it breaks a lot of film making rules and has a style all of it’s own. The film begins with a 30 minute monologue in which a teacher (played by the excellent Takako Matsu) who has apparently lost control of her class, softly and apologetically tells them that they are about to learn an unforgettable lesson on life. I don’t think I have seen another film start with such a long monologue and it is my favourite part of the film – it was so tense that it was quite difficult to breath, gradually the students realise that they should be listening and there is a creeping sense of dread as to how terrible this is actually going to be. I would go so far as to say that this scene is one of the best bits of cinema I have ever seen. Like the villain’s final speech in Oldboy, everything is laid bare and it seems like the film must surely have made the mistake of putting all the exposition and drama right at the start. However it quickly becomes clear that far from being the end, things are only going to escalate.
In fact this is probably the greatest failure with the film – things escalate a bit too far and it is a little hard to swallow. Within the perfect, clean, immaculate world there are more and more levels of complexity and more motivations and lies are revealed: these are the confessions that give the film it’s name. Each one of the intertwining stories is compelling but I found the tension of the first scene gave way to incredulity – after all these are 14 year-olds we are talking about: are they really this twisted and vindictive and do they really do things like make bombs? Still, if you can suspend your disbelief it is compelling watching, but I do feel it goes a bit far.
Overall, Confessions is an excellent film and easily one of the best of the year or even the decade. It takes elements from some of my favourite films and presents them in a unique way. It’s nasty and sad but beautiful and utterly compelling. It is a bit of a shame that the story gets a bit hard to swallow when I think a more toned-down story would have fit better and would have been more believable, but it doesn’t ruin the film at all – though it does seem to be a bit of trend for these revenge films to try and out-do each other and it can all get a bit elaborate and over complicated. It’s one of the best looking films I have ever seen, and Tetsuya Nakashima is clearly one of the top directors in Japan at the moment.