Monster review – robust and empathetic excavation of teenage life
Hirokazu Kore-eda's latest blends melodrama and psychodrama as a mother attempts to understand her son's strange behaviour
When naming the great films of Japanese director Hirokazu Kore-eda, you’re likely to focus on his gentle but impeccably observed and affecting domestic dramas. Nobody Knows, Still Walking, Shoplifters – Kore-eda has carved out a niche in modern Japanese cinema with his perspective on how pain transfers from adult to child, and how mistreatment festers into lasting damage.
He’s less celebrated for his outliers, but After Life, Air Doll, and The Third Murder all have their fair share of fans, who defend his foray into more unstable genre territory – like comedy, thrillers, and supernaturalism. But one year since his Korean-language Broker premiered at Cannes, the director's latest, Monster, wilfully blurs the line between psychodrama and melodrama, giving us a look into troubled teenage life that, rather than feeling like none of his other works, reminds us of all of them.
When single mother Saori (Sakura Ando) notices unnerving changes in her son Minato (Soya Kurokawa), she doesn’t intervene until she’s forced to – namely, when she finds him singing in a flooded, abandoned tunnel, shortly before he throws himself from her moving car. Saori extracts from her erratic son a confession of being bullied by a new homeroom teacher, Mr Hori (Eita Nagayama) – including being told he has the brain of a pig and being physically assaulted.
But when Soari confronts the teachers about her son’s experience, the staff are indirect, confused, deflective. Why won’t they apologise for what happened, or even admit to it? Why does Hori seem pointedly smug about her concerns? Why won’t they even look her in the eye? If you spend the first act feeling increasingly alarmed at everything that’s happening (is everyone a doppelganger? Are they infected by a mind-altering parasite?), the remainder of the runtime reveals some narrative sleight-of-hand that replaces paranormal explanations with deeply tragic ones.
Monster unfolds in three simultaneous plot threads, each favouring a different character’s perspective that end up harmonising to land on a clear, but heartbreaking version of events. The road to narrative clarity definitely features a few bumps (repeating the same stretch of time more than once is poison to any film’s pacing), but it allows for a robust, empathetic excavation of the roots of every character’s mistreatment.
Abuse spreads like snake venom through the arteries of anyone unfortunate enough to suffer it, reshaping the most innocent of minds into something malformed. It’s a pain that can only express itself with more pain, whether self-inflicted or directed at others. Kore-eda has here combined the creepiness of Kiyoshi Kurusawa’s chillers with the heartbreaking teenage cruelty of Japanese cult favourite All About Lily Chou-Chou, topped off with a delicate, weeping score from the late, incomparable Ryuichi Sakamoto. It feels like the director is drawing on different high points of J-cinema to deliver something that never sacrifices his own voice.
Monster was screened as part of the Cannes Film Festival 2023. A UK release date is yet to be announced.Where to watch