Film review: Penance

PUBLISHED : Thursday, 13 December, 2012, 12:00am
UPDATED : Thursday, 13 December, 2012, 1:15am

Starring Kyoko Koizumi, Yu Aoi, Mirai Moriyama, Eiko Koike, Sakura Ando
Director: Kiyoshi Kurosawa
Category IIB (Japanese)


A 10-year-old girl is murdered at her school and none of her four playmates who saw the suspect could provide a useful description to the police. The dead girl's mother is so incensed that she demands each of them pay a penance for her daughter's death. What that retribution will be is for each girl to decide.

This is the ticket to a lifelong guilt trip for four young Japanese women and the mother who struggle to understand this random crime in acclaimed director Kiyoshi Kurosawa's lengthy drama Penance.

Created as a five-part television serial - with one episode for each girl's 'penance' and a finale where the mother uncovers the murder mystery - the 294-minute tale was shown in its entirety at Venice, Toronto and also the Hong Kong Asian Film Festival. But for local commercial release, the distributor has kindly split the nearly five-hour film serial into two parts. Chapters one to three are released today, followed by chapters four and five next week.

Based on a novel by Kanae Minato, the five stories are linked by the appearance of the wrathful mother (Kyoko Koizumi) who in the prologue forewarns the girls, "God may forgive you, but I never will." How's that for a burden to carry?

Picking up 15 years after the unsolved tragedy, each of the young women now live separate lives but are still scarred. All of the actresses (Yu Aoi, above, Mirai Moriyama, Eiko Koike and Sakura Ando), glammed down to match the tone, and Koizumi, are nicely restrained in performances that could easily go over the top.

The obsession with social and communal dysfunction found in Kurosawa's Tokyo Sonata and earlier horror films are on full display here too. With its odd disturbing touches, like a soundtrack full of minor chords and jarring instrumentation, it's difficult to say that Penance is a more accessible work. But little of Kurosawa's brooding style is lost in the smaller budget and extreme close-ups demanded of the smaller screen.

It's hard to forget this is a television project. The video quality is a constant reminder, as is the predictable structure. Except for scholars and Kurosawa aficionados, it's hard to imagine much of a theatrical audience going to see both parts of Penance. More likely, casual Japanese drama fans will buy the DVD and watch in the comfort of their home, which would be fine since you gain little other than a sore behind from choosing the big screen.


Penance (first part) opens today; Penance (second part) opens on December 20