The kids are definitely not all right in “Confessions,” Tetsuya Nakashima’s coldly stylized symphony of cruelty. Pic builds inexorably from one shocking revelation to the next amid the austere, regimented symmetry of a Japanese middle school where two student sociopaths receive their comeuppance at the hands of a teacher. Initially fueled by a thirst for retribution, like Park Chan-wook’s vengeance trilogy, events soon assume their own dark, killer logic. Pic’s striking combination of cool aesthetics and hellish happenings made this psychological scarer a runaway megahit in Japan; Stateside, “Confessions” could score as cutting-edge arthouse fare.
A seventh-grade teacher (Takako Matsu) dispassionately addresses her class, whose uniformed members routinely ignore her, busy lobbing milk cartons, bullying, chatting, texting or just plain zoning out. Undaunted, she carries on in measured tones, explaining that this is her last day as a teacher. She evokes the drowning death of her 4-year-old daughter who, she informs them, was in fact murdered by two students among them, designated as Students A and B but readily identifiable through her description. She matter-of-factly adds that she has injected HIV-positive blood into the milk of the guilty pair, triggering pandemonium.
The two young killers react very differently to their public outing (they are too young to suffer serious legal consequences for their act). Student A (Yukito Nishii), the mastermind of the tween Leopold/Loeb team, secretly hatches apocalyptic schemes while continuing to attend class, where he is mercilessly taunted, beaten and abused (along with anyone who fails to join in pillorying him). Student B (Kaoru Fujiwara), believing himself lethally infected, holes up like an animal in his home, refusing to speak, eat or wash, watched over by his overprotective mother (Yoshino Kimura), herself locked in denial.
Meanwhile, the pitiless engine of revenge gains momentum offscreen, as the pic’s point of view travels from one dissociative mindset to another.
On the surface, the color-leached, oppressive “Confessions” seemingly represents a 180-degree departure from Nakashima’s previous film, the gaudy, delirious musical “Memories of Matsuko” (2006). But both pics might be regarded as high-concept exercises, showcasing extreme fragmentation, rhythmic intensity and stylistic pyrotechnics that lead some to see Nakashima’s films as cobbled-together stretches of superlative musicvideos.
In “Matsuko,” the tonal disjunctions and narrative shifts mirrored the heroine’s shaky navigation between selfishness and selflessness. In “Confessions,” however, the notion of connecting with another proves delusional, as Nakashima renders every character at a complete remove, shown either in grief-fed isolation or in computer-enabled bubbles of self-absorption, their sole intercommunication being the ability to feel or inflict pain. In this benumbed, abstracted world, violence escalates exponentially, unmitigated by empathy.
The formal beauty of Nakashima’s imagery — the chromatic sameness of the students’ attire, the red streaks of infected blood swirling in white milk — serves less to aestheticize horror than to visualize a state of mind where instant gratification trumps human connection.