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  • Writer's pictureBen Turner

Monster *****

Starring: Sakura Andô, Eita Nagayama, Soya Kurokawa, Hinata Hiiragi

Director: Kore-eda Hirokazu

Country: Japan

UK Release: Picturehouse

The last film by Kore-eda Hirokazu, Shoplifters, won the Palme d’Or at the Cannes Film Festival in 2018.  To say that his latest film is highly anticipated is an understatement, but the fact that it won last year's Queer Palm has only served to build the suspense for this compelling coming-of-age drama.

Saori (Andô - Shoplifters, Godzilla Minus One) is perplexed when her young son, Minato (Kurokawa), begins acting strangely. When she quizzes him, he deflects her curiosity by telling her that he has been hit by his teacher, Mr Hori (Nagayama - Dear Doctor). Even though it becomes quickly clear that the incident in question was merely an accident, Saori is intent on having the man fired and his reputation torn to shreds. But with so much focus on the teacher, what she's missing is the intense but secret friendship forming between her son and his classmate, Yori (Hiiragi).

The story is told through three concurrent narratives, first from the mother's, then the teacher and finally from the children themselves. While this structure is hardly groundbreaking, it works exquisitely here, with each version adding more and more colour to what initially seems a very simple story of a mother believing her son's lies. The mother's story is one of hysteria, while the teacher's is the sheer panic of an educator accused of professional misconduct. But the final strand is by far the film's most compelling and most nuanced, depicting the slow awakening of deep feelings within these very young boys.

There's a well-judged sensitivity here that gauges perfectly the upset balance of their childhood innocence and the naivete of Minato's misplaced expectations of manhood. Yori is the class target, who constantly ridicule and bully him for what they perceive to be weak effeminacy. The reality is that he is much stronger than they give him credit for, with skin as thick as leather, taking every jibe and taunt in his stride, coldly ignoring everything the bullies throw at him. And it's Minato's transformation from bullying with the flock to falling in love with Yori that sits right at the centre of the film.

Though this is a film about sexuality, there is a glorious portion of thrilling imagery peppered alongside it. With the film opening with a tower block burning to the ground, there is a derailed train, mudslides, rainstorms, flooding... but this is actually a very simple story told with the flair for the dramatic by an auteur who has taken the coming-of-age genre and flipped it on its head. The result is nothing short of brilliant.

Monster is such a rich film, with a childhood story of first love told through the frenzied eyes of overwrought adults who have simply misunderstood what they're dealing with. A shrewd and edgy social commentary, this is an intelligent and contemplative film played out through pithy dialogue and arresting visuals. This is Japanese filmmaking at its absolute best.

UK Release: 15th March 2024 in cinemas, released by Picturehouse Entertainment


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