The Movie Waffler New to VOD - MONSTER | The Movie Waffler


A mother accuses a teacher of bullying her son.

Review by Eric Hillis

Directed by: Hirokazu Kore-eda

Starring: Sakura Andō, Eita Nagayama, Sōya Kurokawa, Hinata Hiiragi, Mitsuki Takahata, Yūko Tanaka

Monster poster

When filmmakers adopt a Rashomon approach to their storytelling, repeating a series of incidents from various perspectives, it's often gimmicky and cynically employed to cover up what would be an unremarkable narrative if played in conventional fashion. Not so Kurosawa's compatriot Hirokazu Kore-eda, whose Monster uses this storytelling approach to reinforce a film that is above all a plea for understanding, compassion and tolerance. In this social media era we've become far too hasty to form opinions without being privy to vital facts and perspectives. We make our minds up about public figures we really know nothing about based on crumbs of information that we arrogantly assume will lead to a biscuit of our biases. Kore-eda reminds us that we really know very little about anyone else, not even our own children.

Monster review

The film - which sees Kore-eda collaborate with screenwriter Yuji Sakamoto and features a final touching score from the late Ryuichi Sakamoto - is divided into three chapters, each of which offers a distinct perspective. The starting point for all three is the image of a burning building. Who set the fire and why is but one of the mysteries to be solved over the following two hours.

Watching the blaze from their nearby balcony are widowed single mother Saori (Sakura Ando) and her young son Minato (Soya Kurokawa). In the days that follow Saori grows increasingly worried about Minato's odd behaviour. He's become withdrawn and apprehensive; he returns from school with a plaster on his ear; and he attempts to cut his own hair off. One night Minato disappears and Saori tracks him down in a nearby storm drain, where he's found repeatedly shouting the words "Who's the monster?" On the way home, Minato jumps out of Saori's moving car, leading to a hospital examination. Interrogating the boy, Saori is told that he's been bullied by his teacher, Mr. Hori (Eita Nagayama), both physically and verbally.

Monster review

When Saori takes the matter to the school authorities she's met with a wall of silence. The principal, Ms. Fushimi (Yuko Tanaka), is mourning the recent death of her granddaughter in a tragic accident that saw her husband reverse over the child. She's clearly in no state to be at work, and her grief makes it difficult for Saori to express her rage without upsetting this vulnerable woman. Saori's questions are met with responses read directly from a manual. When Hori is brought into the room he appears to be either drunk or stoned. A striking shot of a livid Saori stood in front of a group of people who seem to think she'll leave if they remain bowed for long enough suggests an unspoken frustration younger Japanese people might feel towards the rigidity of their tradition heavy society.

The second chapter rewinds back to that burning building, which we learn housed a hostess bar frequented by Hori, who is dating one of its employees, Hirona (Akhiro Tsunoda). The bookish teacher and the glamour girl are an unlikely pairing, and her mocking of his intellectual interests suggests it's headed nowhere. The relationship is further tested by Saori's allegations, which make the local news. Through Hori's perspective we're given new contradictory evidence regarding what is really up with Minato, who Hori believes is the ringleader in the bullying of Yori (Hinata Hiragi), a sensitive classmate ostracised for his effeminate nature. This segment plays like a companion piece to the recent German drama The Teachers' Lounge, whose protagonist is shunned by her fellow teachers, her pupils and their parents in a similar manner to Hori. Like that film it highlights the precarious nature of being a teacher in today's world where parents assume they know more about their children than the professionals who, in many cases, spend more time in their kids' company.

Monster review

The third and final segment gives us the most vital perspective of all, that of Minato, as it focusses on the truth of his relationship with Yori. Minato is drawn towards Yori's intelligence and the two bond over a shared wonder of the world, making an abandoned railway carriage their secret hideout. There are shades of Lukas Dhont's Close as Minato treats his friend coldly in public, ashamed of his feelings for his put-upon classmate. When Yori confesses to understanding why Minato might not want to be seen in public with him it's a gut-wrenching moment. What's most heartbreaking is how Yori continues to smile throughout his torment. He's accepted it as a fact of life.

This segment could almost be viewed in isolation and still work as a standalone film. There are some small flaws in the preceding chapters - a few details that seem to be inserted to mine drama in the moment but which are never satisfyingly cleared up as the truth unspools – but we quickly forget them as we become engrossed in Minato and Yori's story. It's a charming portrayal of childhood innocence but also of the cruelty passed down by the adult world, and the two central performances are remarkably affecting. I'm not going to reveal how it all pans out, but the threat of tragedy looms large, partly because of the film's ominous title and partly because souls as pure as Minato and Yori don't tend to fare well in societies as traditional as Japan's. Like his young protagonists, Kore-eda asks "Who's the monster?" You may not like the answer.

Monster is on UK/ROI VOD now.

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