TIFF 2012 Review: PENANCE Is A Soapy But Intense Study Of Grief

Todd Brown, Founder and Editor
Losing a child is the worst possible fear of any parent, losing their child by violence the worst possible iteration of that fear. And so it is that Asako is consumed by grief and anger when her young daughter Emili is taken and killed while playing with four of her young friends. Unable to believe or accept that the four girls either did not see the face of Emili's killer or cannot describe him, Asako lays a hard charge upon them. She will hold them guilty and unforgiven for their entire lives unless they perform some sort of penance to her satisfaction. It is a curse of sorts, one that will warp each of their lives.

After several long years away from the genre territory which made his name Japan's Kiyoshi Kurosawa returns with a dark thriller made to air in five parts on Japanese television. Based on the novel by Minato Kanae - who also penned the source material for Japan's Oscar submission Confessions - Penance takes a somewhat pulpier approach to its material than did Tetsuya Nakashima with Confessions but it is nonetheless a welcome and powerful, if somewhat minor, new work from a true master.

Kurosawa follows a very distinct structure with Penance, one clearly tailored for the television audience and one which leads to a certain degree of repetition when viewed theatrically in a single sitting. Divided into five distinct episodes, each of which clearly labelled as such, each focuses on one of the principal quintet - Emili's four friends and her mother - and the consequences the childhood violence has had on each of their lives. There is Sae, who has retreated into a sort of fearful half life terrified of all men. There is Maki, a school teacher whose cold exterior struggles to contain an inner urge to violence. There is Akiko, who has retreated into the life of a shut in. And there is Yuko, seemingly left completely amoral and out only for herself. Each episode takes us through their adult life with Asako turning up at some point to remind them all of how bereft she still is before things spiral into some ultimate tragedy. Only the fifth episode varies from the formula, telling Asako's story and revealing a hidden history.

The episodic structure works against Penance when viewed in a single sitting, Asako coming off as a very single note character throughout the first four episodes before being given any chance to develop at all into anything deeper. The subsequent lives of each of the four girls are also veritable catalogs of neurosis, each seemingly more extreme than the last. It's a structure that would work perfectly well with episodes spaced out over multiple viewings but taken in a block it becomes a predictable cycle of misery before Kurosawa blows up the formula in episode five.

But, that said, taken on their individual merits each episode is meticulously well constructed and beautifully performed. Kurosawa has always been a director fascinated with the consequences of isolation and Penance plays right into those strengths. Each episode reinforces that violence and tragedy are not isolated events, that one moment can have consequences that reach deep into the lives of many for a great many years.

Though not up to the standards of Kurosawa's best work, Penance is certainly an intriguing and worthwhile investment of time and effort. The lengthy run time - roughly four and a half hours - makes it an unlikely candidate for distribution outside of Japan but should it one day arrive on home video it will make for rewarding viewing in the format and style it was originally created.
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  • caro

    It was interesting, depressing, sad, disturbing, strange, violent but I didn't come out of the screening feeling that I gained anything. The film really is a "study of grief" as you said and I guess it's interesting because it describes the detailed and realistic, painful neurosis of the characters and how they've responded to grief. That was interesting... but really overwhelming. The "final chapter", which was supposed to tie it all together and give some relief, felt anti-climactic and lacking. The word "soapy" is really bang-on, the ending and the acting was very soggy ie. melodrama for the sake of melodrama. But... if I ever get the chance to watch it over again, my thoughts might be very different.

  • Craig

    Confessions wasn't nominated for an Oscar

  • You are correct, sir. It was their submission for the Oscar's and made the short list but wasn't actually nominated. I've corrected that.

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