A Film You Won't Regret Seeing

in 27th Fribourg International Film Festival

by Alison Frank

Penance (Shokuzai): the film’s very title, not to mention its 4 ½ hour running time, suggest a punishing experience for the viewer. Yet this film felt far shorter than many slower-paced, standard-length features in Fribourg’s competition. FIFF artistic director Thierry Jobin made a bold decision in selecting Penance, originally commissioned as a TV series by Japanese broadcaster WoWow, and screened previously outside competition at last year’s Venice Film Festival. As a series, Penance had to be divided into episodes, but when these episodes are viewed in one sitting, it doesn’t feel as though the episode structure has been imposed on the film. On the contrary, it’s a suitable structuring device for this particular story, which follows four young women affected by a schoolmate’s murder.

As children, the girls became friends with Emili, the new kid in their class. One day, they see a stranger leading Emili away; later, they discover her body in the school gym. Suffering from shock, none of them is able to remember anything about the murderer, but Emili’s mother refuses to accept this excuse. She tells the girls that they must find the perpetrator or perform some kind of penance. The film then shifts 15 years into the future, and visits each of the four girls in turn: now grown up, they continue feel the effects of the tragedy in different ways. One is haunted by the theft of her childhood doll and feels like she has never grown up; another is a schoolteacher who is overly protective of her students; a third lives as a recluse, suffering from the delusion that the clothes she wore that day were responsible for Emili’s death; finally, the fourth has had a romantic obsession with police officers ever since one showed her kindness on the day Emili was murdered. As adults, the young women have no contact with each other, but Emili’s mother doesn’t fail to track them down one by one, giving her steely assessment of their idea of penance. Emili’s mother herself is the subject of the final episode in the film: when she unexpectedly receives new information about the murderer and has a chance to exact revenge, she is forced to confront feelings of guilt from her own past.

Many commentators have noted that television has, of late, set standards so high that mainstream cinema has trouble living up to them: the best TV series, such as The Wire or The Killing, boast a highly professional aesthetic and have the added advantage of being able to develop complex intrigues over long cumulative running time. In the case of Penance, it didn’t seem unfair to compare a 270-minute television project to the other films in competition, even if most of them were features of two hours or less.

With a film as intriguing as Penance, you just want to keep watching: in this sense, it’s a bonus that the film lasts so long, but Penance would be just as strong if it had followed two friends instead of four, eliminating a couple of episodes and cutting the film down to standard length. Penance is stunning right from the opening shot, where Emili, on her first day at her new school, walks into a sunny classroom wearing a bright red dress and meets her pretty teacher and smiling classmates. With its sharp image, dazzling colours and minimalist sets, the film immediately sets up a distinctive, highly artificial aesthetic. Although the colours become more muted when the film shifts to the girls’ adult lives, the striking purity of the image persists, as does the fast-paced, gripping storyline.

While the TV-series length gives Penance the time to tell more stories than the average film, it’s not the number of stories but the quality of the storytelling that is so impressive. Director Kiyoshi Kurosawa’s background in the horror genre is evident in his Hitchcockian mastery of tension inPenance, building up to moments that are not actually horrifying, but which terrorise the audience with suspense. This tension is present in every story, from the fiancé who has a creepy surprise in store for his bride-to-be, to the girl who shamelessly seduces her sister’s husband.

As the work of an expert filmmaker, Penance is a pleasure to watch, and in this sense is its own justification. As film that deliberately cultivates an artificial atmosphere, and never stops astounding the audience with its storylines, Penance might seem unlikely to offer a meaningful comment on real life in Japan. Yet on a broad thematic level,Penance can be said to investigate questions of generational guilt in Japanese society, explored in a far more sensationalist way by Sion Sono in Cold Fish (Tsumetai nettaigyo, 2010) and Guilty of Romance (Koi no tsumi, 2011).

Alison Frank