Thursday, July 21, 2011
Review – Confessions
July 21, 2011
Confessions – Japan, 2010
Akira Kurosawa’s final film Madadayo begins with a veteran teacher announcing that he has decided to make the current term his last. The news is greeted with a mixture of shock and sadness, followed by one student rising to proclaim his and his classmates great appreciation for all he has done for them. These sentiments are never forgotten, and as the years go by, the teacher’s former students continue to honor him and thank him for the continued impact he has had on their families. Tetsuya Nakashima’s well acted film Confessions too begins with a teacher announcing to her class that she is leaving the teaching profession, yet the reaction could not be more different. Her students, at least those of them whose eyes can be pried away from the seductive screens of the latest cell phones, either cheer the news or appear completely indifferent to it. Only one of them appears to be genuinely saddened by the announcement. How times have changed.
What follows is a description of some of the events captured in the film’s long opening scene, which runs about thirty minutes. I will not describe more than that, and I will try not to reveal key elements of the story. This is one film that is best experienced cold, as its twists and turns are most effective if viewers don’t know about them thirty minutes before they are revealed. And there are plenty of twists in the film: personalities change, motivations become clearer, and characters that we initially thought of one way may in fact be viewed completely differently by the end of the film. Throughout, the film remains fascinating, despite being one of the most depressing films about contemporary society I’ve seen in quite a while.
The teacher who announces her resignation in the opening scene is Yuko Moriguchi (Takako Matsu), and before she leaves her classroom for the last time, she has one final lesson for her spoiled, unappreciative students. Her lesson turns into the first of the film’s many confessions. When she begins her tale, her students couldn’t care less. It is only when she mentions that her deceased fiancé had HIV that all of the talking ceases, replaced by gasps and looks of sheer panic. One student begins to hold her breath; another jumps when Moriguchi touches her arm gently. They are clearly ignorant of the ways in which HIV can and cannot be transmitted. Moriguchi tries to reassure them, explaining that she has tested negative for the virus, but judging from events later in the film, she is not that successful. She then continues with her story – she and her fiancé decided not to marry because of his condition, and because of the stigma that HIV still carries, they kept it a secret that he was Moriguchi’s daughter’s father. Four years later, Moriguchi’s daughter Manami was found floating face down in a swimming pool - an accidental drowning, according to the official police investigation. Moriguchi however knows the truth, and she announces it to her students in a rather cold emotionless way: Two of them killed her daughter, and she knows which of them it was.
She doesn’t stop there. She weaves a troubling tale of a plot by two students who couldn’t be more different. One is a straight-A student; academic success eludes the other, despite his best efforts. One is reserved and lacks confidence; the other is overconfident and slightly sadistic, if what can be found on his website is authentic, that is. Moriguchi doesn’t name these students outright, but the class quickly figures it out on their own, and they begin to send a rapid succession of text messages in which they state the students who match the teacher’s descriptions. Then comes the kicker. Moriguchi announces to her students that she laced the milk these two students drank earlier in class with HIV-tainted blood. And with that, class is dismissed. What follows reveals the fate of these characters, how they relate to each other after this terrible secret has been revealed, and the events that led up to Manami’s death. We hear from characters through confessions, most of them delivered through the Internet. One is delivered through a letter that no one should ever receive.
Over the past two decades, movies and television shows have focused a great deal of attention on the deterioration of American schools, from often dilapidated classrooms to the all too frequent need for metal detectors in some schools, and one of the central themes of the TV show Boston Public was that students no longer wanted to learn. In most films and television shows that have focused on day-to-day academic life, there is a clear delineation between heroes and villains. If a nice student killed someone, it had to be an accident. If a student was a bully in the beginning of the film, the film wasn’t likely to present him as having sympathetic qualities by the end of it. And if a teacher truly cared about his students, he was almost always able to reach them in the end. Confessions does not follow this script, and if what it depicts is indeed representative of today’s students, we should all be very worried.
Throughout Confessions, there are constant references to a book by a character named Masayoshi Sakuranomiya. The writer’s work is well known to both teachers and students. At one point in the film, a young teacher named Werther reads a passage from Sakuranomiya’s book in an attempt to express to his students both how much teaching means to him and what the role of a teacher is. One gets a sense from both the passage and Werther’s enthusiastic reading of it that a teacher must be more than just an educator, he must also be a friend, a trusted companion, someone ready to assist students regardless of the situation or the time of day. There was a time when sentiments such as these were seen as admirable, yet Werther’s students use his enthusiasm as an excuse to mock him.
Confessions is a compelling film about a tough topic, and its structure is near perfect. If there is one major problem with the film, it is that it does not end as well as it should. It elects for a face-to-face encounter when it seems unlikely that one would occur under these circumstances. The ending also adds a supernatural element to the film where one wasn’t needed. If what Shuya realizes has occurred is indeed powerful, the audience doesn’t need to be shown it visually. That we see it in flashbacks is evidence that the director either didn’t trust the audience or didn’t have confidence in his actors. He should have trusted both. Still, Confessions is an unforgettable look at the modern world, with an involving story and well developed characters. It stands out as one of the better, unpleasant experiences I’ve had in some time. (on DVD and Blu-ray in Asia; it does not have a release date in the U.S. yet)
*Confessions is in Japanese with English subtitles.