As scary as it sounds, “monster” can be such a strangely comforting word. Don’t just classify someone as inhuman it absolves us from recognizing the more difficult aspects of our shared humanity, it also reaffirms the smallness and simplicity of an infinitely complex universe that keeps expanding no matter how much we would like to embrace it. “Monster” is a period at the end of a sentence; it’s the permission we give ourselves to demonize everything we don’t understand.
And, for all these reasons, it is also a very unexpected title for a new feature film by the great Hirokazu Kore-eda, whose painfully humanistic stories of families lost and found (e.g. “The Shoplifters”, “Still Walking”, “After the Storm “”) have never had any use for such a stifling and judgmental term. Yet, in the wake of a pandemic that has exacerbated so many of society’s worst impulses, Kore-eda felt compelled to make a film that completely dismantled it.
A thick, enveloping melodrama that spirals towards its central idea with the centrifugal force of a Christopher Nolan film, “Monster” is one of those films that – from the title down – invites the audience to make the worst guesses of the his characters so he can show us our blind spots when the story eventually comes back to fill in the blanks.
Paul Haggis’ “Crash” might be an unkind comparison for a film that just as often evokes the likes of Kiyoshi Kurosawa’s “Cure,” but it’s not quite a unfair one, that some of the more artful moments in Yuji Sakamoto’s screenplay betray a didacticism that has rarely appeared in Kore-eda’s previous work. At the same time, though, this knotted plot about misunderstood children at the mercy of a reactionary adult world also contains moments of heartbreaking sensitivity so honest and true that even hardcore Kore-eda fans may not realize he didn’t know how to write it himself. .
“Monster” is the only film Kore-eda has made in his native Japan since winning the Palme d’Or for “Shopkeepers” in 2018 (“The Truth” was set in France, and “Broker” from last year in South Korea), but his decision to direct someone else’s script for the first time since 1995’s “Maboroshi” suggests a director who’s still eager to push himself outside his comfort zone. So does the film’s opening chapter, which conjures a different (and far more ominous) shade of darkness than previously evoked in films like “Distance” or “The Third Murder.”
“Monster” begins with a deliberate fire at a hostess bar in a lakeside Japanese town, and the identity of the arsonist responsible becomes the greatest of several mysteries in a film whose narrative is underpinned by the inertia of unabashed questioning. answer. Our prime suspect: a pouting, sulking fifth-grade student named Minato (Soya Kurokawa, another in Kore-eda’s seemingly endless supply of immaculate child actors), whose widowed single mother Saori (Shoplifters’ gorgeous Sakura Ando ) is already worried about her son’s recent behavior.
Minato’s new demands for privacy are commonplace at that age, and Saori has no reason to believe her son is assembling Molotov cocktails behind her locked bedroom door, but Ando scans his face. co-starring with the agitated discomfort of a parent who realizes that they no longer know everything about their children’s lives. As Minato begins to complain about the bullying he repeats cryptic things he heard in school and suggests he was physically assaulted by a teacher named Mr. Hori (Eita Nagayama), Saori’s anxiety balloons to existential proportions.
When Minato pulls out a Lady Bird and the barrel rolls out of his mother’s moving car, “Monster” is halfway to becoming a full-blown horror film about a mother’s fear of losing her child to forces beyond beyond her control, and Kore-eda – cleverly turning her usual empathies on its head – extracts a wicked degree of day-to-day dread from the sequence in which Saori goes to Minato’s school for a meeting with the principal. This is where Kore-eda first begins to expand the definition of his film title, broadening it to accommodate all manner of unknowns.
Considering the weight Sakamoto’s script will later give to the word “alien” in a very different context, the “Invasion of the Body Snatchers” vibe of Saori’s parent-educator meeting feels strangely deliberate. Hori himself, smiling and distracted, acts as if he’s never interacted with a human before, and the fact that he teaches all of his classes in his tracksuit does exactly nothing to ease Saori’s concern. Everyone at the school reacts to her complaint as if Hori had just hit her son in the face by accident (“We’ll learn from our mistake” is a common refrain), and the feeling of having entered some kind of bizarre world only increases. delivered with the first of the film’s many unreliable revelations: her precious Minato isn’t being bullied, he’s the one doing the bullying. We’re told that Eri (Hinata Hiiragi), a gleefully androgynous classmate prone to wearing ruffle sweaters, is actually the victim of it all.
It’s about then that “Monster” goes back to the beginning to depict the same period of time from Hori’s point of view, a trick that will be repeated in many different ways to define the film’s figure eight. The transition from one point of view to another is never absolute – ‘Monster’ is not as sharply divided between its characters as something like ‘Rashomon’, nor does it have the same interest in questioning the objective fact of its events – but each cycle through this story complicates what we know by giving us more information, as the creeping terror of Saori’s chapter gives way to a more ambiguous kind of social unease. It’s an approach informed by the gaps in our understanding of each other, mimicking and triggering the human tendency to fill these gaps in bad faith whenever it might be the easiest way to make sense of the unknown.
It goes without saying that Mr. Hori may not be as cruel as Saori thought. Indeed, there is something frustratingly predictable about the way many of this film’s most obnoxious characters are redeemed by additional context, as the reverse is almost never proven to be true. The one major exception to this rule involves the story’s most heinous voice, which reveals itself in a way poignant enough to deserve its own movie (thus making its awkward integration into this one much more of a sore point), but all these bombshells reveal itself in service of the film’s most obvious and tender revelation. That truth is hinted at throughout, but its final confirmation is powerful enough to reframe the entire film around it as it finds Kore-eda pushing even deeper into territory he’s never explored before.
‘Monster’ clearly has a lot on his mind, and its confusing timeline isn’t always suited to making room for everything this movie is trying to do. The destabilizing structure of the script has a tendency to dull the impact of otherwise insightful moments, as is often the case with stories that don’t let you know what they are Truly about until their final minutes – and some of the sacrifices it makes as it approaches “monstrosity” feel too severe to warrant the structural conceit. Ando’s performance peaks with a spine-tingling display of silent parental horror at the end of the film’s opening time loop, and her frequent absences from the rest of the film are so pronounced that it seems Kore-eda forgot something along the way. street.
But “Monster” also exploits its strange timeline in some powerfully unexpected ways. A stray shoe acquires an extra layer of heartbreaking meaning each time someone tries it on, while the sound of a wandering trombone from the school’s music room echoes with a rich new resonance after we learn who it’s coming from. The universe always keeps expanding, explains one character, and time will reverse once everything finally breaks down. Perhaps then, Kore-eda suggests, the “mistake” people use to explain things we don’t fully understand — in each other and in themselves — will also be reversed, and the misunderstood characters at the heart of this too unusual film will be reborn into the people they always were.
“Monster” premiered at the 2023 Cannes Film Festival. It is currently seeking distribution in the United States.