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Movies: Confessions ***

Japanese society is famously cohesive and peaceful, but if Tetsuya Nakashima's dark and stylised drama is anything to go by, family breakdowns and social alienation are having an effect there, too.

At the beginning of Confessions, a high-school teacher called Yuko Moriguchi (Takako Matsu) tells a story to her rowdy and disinterested class. It's not a happy one: Yoku had a husband, who contracted Aids and died. Even worse, Yoku had a child with him, an angelic little girl who was recently found floating face-down in a swimming pool. The official verdict was suicide, but Yuko believes it was murder, and tells her class the killers are among them, and must suffer.

From this premise Confessions branches out into a series of vignettes that invade the lives of various characters. There's Shuya Watanabe (Yukito Nishii), a cold-blooded monomaniac who was traumatised at an early age by the departure of his mother and has turned his morbid rage on the world.

He's a clever boy and something of an inventor, but when he wins a prize and is eclipsed in the local paper by a girl who poisoned her entire family, Shuya decides to adopt a more radical approach to getting noticed. In doing so he enlists the help of a feeble-minded and easily led loner called Naoki Shimoumura (Kaoru Fujiwara), who only realises what's really going on when it's too late.

Confessions initially looks like it's going to shape up as a gritty social drama, but once it gets going, it escalates into a grand guignol horror film. Towards the end it stretches credibility, and there's a kind of glibness to the way Nakashima freezes scenes in motion time and again to the strains of a self-consciously mournful soundtrack. The film's structure is problematic too, but against all this is a constant vein of invigorating visual invention.

Confessions is packed with arresting images, and Mr Nakashima skillfully creates an atmosphere of free-floating dread.

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