Cannes 2023 Review: "Monster"
In his first Japanese production since ‘Shoplifters’, Kore-eda applies the Rashomon effect to a story of fractured families and boys seeking connection.
Scary as it sounds, “monster” can be such a strangely comforting word. Not only does classifying someone as inhuman absolve us from acknowledging the most difficult aspects of our shared humanity, but it also reaffirms the smallness and simplicity of an infinitely complex universe that continues to expand no matter how much we might want to wrap our arms around it. “Monster” is a period at the end of a sentence; it’s the permission we give ourselves to demonise whatever we don’t understand. And, for all of those reasons, it’s also a very unexpected title for a new feature by the great Hirokazu Kore-eda, whose achingly humanistic stories of families lost and found have never had any use for such a judgmental term. And yet, in the wake of a pandemic that exacerbated so many of society’s worst impulses, Kore-eda felt compelled to make a film that dismantles it completely. A dense and looping melodrama that spirals towards its core idea with the centrifugal force of a Christopher Nolan movie, “Monster” is one of those movies that invite the audience’s worst assumptions of its characters so that it can show us our blind spots when the story eventually circles back to fill in the blanks.
Returning to his native Japan after helming two features abroad (“Broker” and “The Truth”), the 2018 Palme d’Or winner opens his latest Cannes competition entry with a building on fire — a “hostess bar” where lonely men seek female company — and fifth-grade Minato (Kurokawa Soya) watching the inferno from a nearby balcony. Kore-eda will return to this scene three times over the course of the film, folding the narrative back upon itself from a different angle each time, before finally revealing who set the blaze. The title misleads for a time, inviting us to speculate about the darkness that surrounds young Minato. Could a child have been the culprit? What makes someone a “monster”? More troubling still, what would lead an 11-year-old to adopt such a label for himself? Those and a hundred other questions swirl in our brains as Kore-eda presents a shape-shifting portrait of a troubled boy, his single mom Saori (Ando Sakura), eccentric schoolteacher Mr Hori (Nagayama Eita) and various other characters, every one of which proves to be far more complex and unknowable than we might first assume.
From "Monster" by Kore-eda © Festival de Cannes
Performances are lovely across the board, reaping rewards from the director’s unimpeachable skill at working with children. The visuals are unfussy and naturalistic but emotionally resonant in images like the two friends running joyfully across a stretch of sun-dappled green. The drama is complemented throughout by a gentle score of piano and occasional atonal horns by the late Ryuichi Sakamoto, to whom the film, his final project, is dedicated. Indeed, with superb casting Kore-Eda gets excellent work again from Sakura, as well as Eita, the latter as a teacher thrust into a personal crisis that has him teetering on edge all due to a child’s lie. Veteran actress Tanaka Yuko also delivers subtle work as the principal whose own secret and suffering slowly come to a boil. Both the primary child actors here are superb, their relationship in some ways similar to last year’s Cannes Grand Prix winner “Closer” in terms of complex examination of vulnerable kids experiencing their own levels of trauma in their young lives.
When the explanation for Minato’s behaviour finally does emerge, it comes from left field, but pulls so many of the movie’s other mysteries together … except for one: Why would Kore-eda choose such a convoluted way of telling this particular story? By sharing only select pieces of each character’s private life, he all but obliges us to leap to incorrect conclusions, distracting with topics such as bullying, aggression and suicide when the real subject — how children are socialised, and the unfair pressures this puts on anyone who doesn’t fit the norm — is so much simpler than any of the intriguing dimensions teased along the way. Many of the peerless humanist’s frequent themes figure in “Monster” — loss, isolation, the elusive nature of happiness and the struggles of imperfect families. The director’s customary delicacy, compassion and sensitivity ripple through the drama, though its affecting moments of illumination are more intermittent than cumulative. Overall, “Monster” is not a major Kore-eda entry, no doubt withholding too much to work ultimately, but for admirers of the director’s films, there are pleasures to be found.