Not so ‘Confessions’. It’s hard to remember a film so bleakly, furiously anti-people, in which almost every character is a vicious tyrant or a deluded, deserving victim, and most of them haven’t even graduated from high school. The film opens with a bravura 30-minute monologue, the first of the five ‘confessions’, in which teacher Moriguchi (Takako Matsu) reveals to her rowdy, self-involved pupils that the death of her beloved four-year-old daughter Manami wasn’t an accident, but an act of wilful murder carried out by two of the students in the class – and that she’s spiked those students’ free milk with HIV-infected blood.
From here, it’s a freewheeling downhill spiral of degradation and death, as Moriguchi’s revenge plan takes a series of savage twists, while her victims, psychotic engineering prodigy Shuya (Yukito Nishii) and remorseful recluse Naoki (Kaoru Fujiwara), become ever more desperate and unhinged. Nakashima’s signature stylistic inventiveness is exhilaratingly expressed in a series of stunning slo-mo shots of raindrops on windows and gathering storm clouds, lending a sense of impending tragedy which suffuses the entire film. The colour palette is steely and muted, a glassy, hauntingly beautiful urban landscape populated by abandoned souls who lack even the most basic human empathy.
But this atmosphere of rampant nihilism can become oppressive, and it tends to squeeze the life out of the characters: both Moriguchi and Shuya are psychologically convincing, but we never get a real sense of them as human beings. This could be a problem with translation: in many scenes, dialogue between characters is overlaid with voiceover and TV news broadcasts or interspersed with flashes of text messages and emails and it’s simply impossible to accurately convey this overload of information in subtitles.
‘Confessions’ was Japan’s entry for this year’s Foreign Language Oscar, but it came as no surprise when the film wasn’t nominated: a grim, challenging drama about murderous high school kids must be an unbeatable recipe for Oscar poison. But, like all of Nakashima’s films, it deserves wider attention: one of the few directors currently working who has intelligence enough to ensure that his films aren’t just eye-poppingly stylish but loaded with emotional substance, his is a bold and provocative body of work. ‘Confessions’ may be too grimly cynical to convince fully, but its combination of visual excess, dark wit, random violence, psychological insight and raw emotional intensity is intoxicating.