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June 2011


cast: Takako Matsu, Yoshino Kimura, Masaki Okada, Yukito Nishii, and Kaoru Fujiwara

director: Tetsuya Nakashima

106 minutes (15) 2010
widescreen ratio 1.85:1
Third Window DVD Region 2

RATING: 8/10
review by Jonathan McCalmont


Some labels are more useful than others. For example, a recent trip to a central London bookshop revealed the existence of such genres as 'paranormal fantasy' and 'teen noir'. Curious as to what these new genres might involve, I was disappointed to learn that both 'genres' are in fact nothing more than labels used by publishers as part of an attempt to sell paranormal romance to people who would not normally read Twilight wannabes. Indeed, a fantasy fan might be put off by the term 'paranormal romance' but they might well stop to browse a 'paranormal fantasy' section. Similarly, male teenagers might turn their noses up at fang-bangers in general and yet still be intrigued by the notion of 'teen noir'. Once you start to think in this way about genre nomenclature, it becomes quite difficult to stop leading us to the question of the day: is there such a thing as a 'psychological thriller'?

On the one hand, the term 'psychological thriller' gets splashed about with little concern for accuracy. Critics apply the term with equal ease to such emotionally brutal dramas as Darren Aronofsky's Requiem For A Dream (2000), as they do to the gothic eroticism of Paul Verhoeven's Basic Instinct (1992), and the bloodless horror of M. Night Shyamalan's The Sixth Sense (1999). While these very different films may well share a darkish tone, a lack of blood and a fundamental concern with the inner lives of their characters, what really locates them as psychological thrillers is the fact that they are neither scary enough to be proper works of 'horror' nor mundane enough to be thought of as 'dramas'. In practice, the psychological thriller genre seems to exist as a sort of dumping ground between different genres, the ambivalence of its label ('thriller' implies sensationalism but 'psychological' implies intelligence) seemingly devised to maximise potential custom.

On the other hand, there are films that seem to so perfectly inhabit the term 'psychological thriller' that the genre glides into focus as a distinct cinematic and literary entity with its own rules, its own historical traditions and its own very distinctive aesthetic values. Sit through Henri-Georges Clouzot's Le Corbeau (1943), Jack Clayton's The Innocents (1961), or Claude Chabrol's La Ceremonie (1995), and you will discover films in which characters are chiselled from raw granite, their every nuance and flaw laid before the world in awesome beauty, before they are allowed out into a world built purely to ensure their ultimate and hideous destruction. At its best, the psychological thriller is anchored in both a firm grasp of human nature and the certain knowledge that we are powerless to resist the crippling weight of our own psychological weaknesses.

Based on a hugely successful novel by Kanae Minato, Tetsuya Nakashimma's Confessions (aka: Kokuhaku) is very much a psychological thriller in the second sense of the term. Set in a Japanese high school, the film begins by presenting us with a cast of deeply flawed characters before setting them on paths that lead inevitably to their doom. Confessions begins with a scene reminiscent of the bit in an Agatha Christie novel where Poirot sits down all the suspects and explains to them who committed the murder and why. Poirot, in this case, takes the form of a high school teacher (Takako Matsu) who explains to her class how two of her students murdered her four year-old daughter and made it look like an accident. Dropping the occasional hint as to the students' identities, the teacher painstakingly recreates the night of the murder culminating with the announcement that she has exacted a terrible revenge upon her students by feeding them milk infected with HIV-positive blood. This confession complete, the film moves on to exploring the repercussions of this revelation; what it meant for the students, what it meant for the class and what led the students to committing the crime in the first place.

As the ghastly constellation of neuroses that lead to the murder is carefully illuminated, Confessions flirts with forgiveness, bats its eyelashes at reconciliation but ultimately ends in an act of vengeance so beautifully composed and ambiguous in its meaning that it rivals anything found in the work of such divinities of the form as Claude Chabrol, Alfred Hitchcock, Ruth Rendell, or Patricia Highsmith. Confessions is not just a true psychological thriller... it is proof that the genre is more than a dumping ground for films that fall between more popular marketing categories, but this does not mean that it is not without its weaknesses.

Confessions is a visually impressive film. Drawing on the sort of gosh-wow technical brilliance that makes for memorable music videos, as well as having a real eye for shot composition and an impressive grasp of pace and tone, Nakashima produces a work filled with memorable moments of high cinematic brilliance. From bubbles that burst in ears to explosions that run backwards and forwards through time as characters realise their true implications, there is no denying that Confessions is brilliantly shot and incredibly well-made.

However, just as one is struck by Nakashima's technical skill, one cannot help but notice how little these flights of directorial fantasy actually add to the film. Indeed, it is almost as though, having decided not only to adapt a book but also to stick quite closely to the form of the text (i.e. people delivering their confessions in the form of extended monologues), Nakashima set about keeping himself busy by trying out different techniques and effects resulting in a film whose undeniable visual impact serves not to augment the drama but to distract from it. This is profoundly unfortunate as Confessions' true power lies not in its visuals but in its structure and its characterisation.

Like many psychological thrillers, Confessions presents us with a bleak vision of human nature according to which humans are incapable of escaping their own psychological problems even if these problems lead to our demise. What makes this even worse is that, according to Confessions, many of our psychological problems are inherited from our parents. The film explores this idea by juxtaposing an enraged high school teacher seeking revenge for the death of her child with a pair of high school students who are pushed to commit terrible crimes by the actions of their parents. From parent to child and from child to parent, misery is passed back and forth in the endless and inescapable cycle of human life and misery. Confessions' power lies not only in its acute characterisation but also in its insightful depiction of the infectious nature of human misery. Even if we were capable of escaping who we are, we would still be powerless to evade the influence of those around us.

Nakashima explores this compelling vision of human nature through a series of interlocking confessions that slowly unveil both the characters' true natures and the hideous nature of their collective predicament. What really impresses here is the absolute control that Nakashima displays over the pacing of the film's exposition. Confessions drip-feeds us information about its characters in such a way that each new revelation hits with maximum impact ensuring that, just as you think that the characters could not sink any lower, a truth is revealed that makes everything seem just that little bit more ugly.

If my account of Confessions' plot seems somewhat sketchy it is because in order to tell you what happens in the film I would also have to reveal how the film is structured and the ways in which this structure influences the way in which you see the characters and, by that stage, I might as well provide a shot by shot description of the entire film. Confessions is a film that brings new meaning to the term 'intricate plotting'.

Confessions comes with an entire DVD devoted to extras but none of these extras proves to be particularly interesting. In fact, they are so bad that they illustrate one of the enduring problems with DVD extras. The term 'DVD extra' suggests that these featurettes add value to the DVD by providing people who buy the DVD with something they might not have had upon seeing the film in cinemas. Directors' commentaries are 'DVD extras' as are interviews with critics and behind-the-scenes footage explaining how the film was made.

Unfortunately, many DVD distributors take the term 'DVD extra' to denote 'any old shite we stick on the DVD'. Confessions' extras are a case in point as, while the extra DVD contains a featurette and some lengthy interviews with director and cast alike, the content of these featurettes is clearly geared to selling the film to a prospective audience rather than adding something to the experience of someone who has already purchased the film. Interviews telling us how great the on-set chemistry was might well induce people to go and see the film but what does such information add to the experience of someone who has already seen the film? Shoving promotional material onto the DVD is not the same thing as providing meaningful DVD extras and so, despite having an entire DVD of stuff included in the box, I find myself forced to conclude that Confessions does not come with any real extras to speak of.

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