Though it made the shortlist for this year's Academy Award for Best Foreign Language Film, there's little surprise that Confessions, a thoroughly unpleasant, if artistically rewarding thriller from Japan, didn't make the final five. A million miles away from the stereotypical middle-mindedness of Oscar voters (though they did at least vote the controversial and also brilliant Greek pic Dogtooth into the five), this is a haunting film of considerable emotional depth and power, and you'll probably struggle to shake it off for days. Yuko Moriguchi (Takako Matsu) is a high school teacher, and she announces to the surprise of her class that she will leaving the school very soon. As a parting gift, she tells her class a story, revealing the circumstances of her own daughter's murder. The shocked class listen on as Moriguchi reveals that the two murderers are students from this very class, sitting in this very room, and that she has already wreaked a disturbing vengeance of her own... Little more can be said about Confessions without giving the game away, because it is a dynamo of a film that plays its hand right from the get-go, relenting only as the end credits roll. The film's first sight is of Moriguchi's unruly class running riot while she demonstrates an almost eerie level of resolve. Eerie is right, for beneath her neat, composed exterior lies a disturbing bed of secrets, bound only to encourage the self-negating cacophony of venom, regret, anger, and sadness that rests in her heart. The opening act of Confessions is in itself a masterclass of escalating tension and well worth the price of admission, remarking the casual cruelty of youth with blunt-force impact, while the apathy of an entire generation is exaggerated to deadly, even satirical means (though the humour here is close to pitch black). In many ways tracing the same trajectory as Battle Royale - a more realistic, also pessimistic vision though it is - Confessions laments an age of youth disaffected by social networking and our increasing reliance on insulatory technological "advances", where the ubiquity of media outlets grants even apparently "innocent" children the chance to develop an ego and sense of entitlement at an age liable to be horrifying to anyone born as recent as 1995. The incredible first act boasts more horror, surprise and intrigue than most fully-formed features, and though the subsequent hour never feels as concise or gathered, this is a potent, almost unbearably visceral slice of confronting cinema. After such a highly-strung first act, Nakashima runs a considerable risk of losing all manner of steam thereafter, yet the story's literary origin - a novel by Kanae Minato - ensures characterisation to be a focal concern. Through a series of confessions, in which characters express their thoughts to the viewer, deeply unsettling information is drip-fed to us, all of which leads to a disquieting conclusion of moral abandonment, lost innocence, and of course, murder. Probing deep into both character and consequence, Nakashima certainly does not want for incident when there is so much wrong to go around in this grim tale of grand ambiguity. As a broader social satire - of the role of the media in our lives, and how we choose to raise our children - it is certainly pungent and smartly composed, but its true impact comes from the increasingly schizophrenic directorial style that comes to reflect the fractured state of the protagonist's lives. The honesty and brutal lack of sentiment gives it the deeply unsettling feel of a Chan-wook Park film; the wrenching power of the teacher's anguish is especially reminiscent of Sympathy for Mr. Vengeance, and much like that film, no matter how depraved the protagonist becomes in the name of revenge, we simply cannot write them off entirely. The finale - sure enough a nod to the classic teen satire Heathers - trifles with contrivance and silliness, but it is a self-conscious conceit by Nakashima, and it's worth sticking with for the bigger picture to coalesce, which it does with a gob-smacking "gotcha!" ending. The overblown second-half may seem at odds with the more subdued opening act, but the visceral, deeply discomfiting truths the film searches for more than compensates. It might not be taking home any Oscars, but this unforgettable film ensures that Nakashima will be one to look out for nonetheless. Confessions is released in the U.K. tomorrow.
Frequently sleep-deprived film addict and video game obsessive who spends more time than is healthy in darkened London screening rooms. Follow his twitter on @ShaunMunroFilm or e-mail him at shaneo632 [at] gmail.com.