Japanese auteur Hirokazu Kore-eda is a perceptive observer of families, keenly detecting the quirks that make an individual unique and the whole stronger and more complicated. 2018’s masterful Palme d’Or winner “Shoplifters” was perhaps the finest display of Kore-eda’s skills and preoccupations as a minimalist artist of mysterious domestic rhythms, informed by social and financial realities.
His make-shift family in last year’s arguably more populist “Broker” didn’t hit a note as high, but “Monster,” the director’s return to this year’s Cannes competition, feels closer to the subtly multilayered tales we came to expect from him.
A sweet, unknowable and often purposely misleading red herring of a whodunit that morphs into an unexpected tale of friendship, “Monster” feels like a departure for Kore-eda, mostly because of its intricate structure that recounts the same event from three different viewpoints. An obvious (and quite accurate) association point for many will be Akira Kurosawa’s “Rashomon,” which reconstructs an incident by emphasizing the significance of perspective in search of truth.
But perhaps a more precise comparison for the script, written by Yuji Sakamoto (a first-time Kore-eda collaborator), can be found in the films of Asghar Farhadi, a gifted dramaturgist and composition virtuoso who delicately mines the truth out of his stories’ often guarded characters.
Kore-eda navigates this film with a similar attitude. Though, in all honesty, unlike “Rashomon” or a Farhadi film like “A Separation,” his searching exercise sometimes becomes a trying one that you might lose your patience for, especially once “Monster” pulls the rug out from under the viewer with a narrative curveball that arrives way too late in the script.
Because that curveball is very much a part of the story’s premise, it’s quite challenging to write about this film in a meaningful way without spoiling it in some sense. (You’ve been warned.) Suffice it to say that just when you think you’ve settled in for a tale of school bullying, consequence culture, emotional development and familial grief, you suddenly find yourself inside a yarn closer to Lukas Dhont’s Oscar nominated “Close.”
Not that “Monster” isn’t also about all of the aforesaid topics. In its first segment, the film largely follows Saori (Sakura Ando), a single mother living in a small Japanese town with her son, Minato (Soya Kurokawa). We learn that Minato’s dad passed away, but the mother and son are still embracing his soul with heartwarmingly small gestures, like celebrating his birthday at the altar they’ve fashioned at home. Elsewhere, a fire believed to be the result of an arson attack has broken out, the flames of which the mother and son watch from afar.
Their domestic order soon turns upside down when Minato starts acting up inexplicably, with Kore-eda leading us to believe he might still be emotionally challenged with grief. It gets worse when he turns up with a bleeding ear, which makes his formerly adored teacher, Hori (Eita Nagayama), the prime suspect who might or might not have called him “pig brained.” In a sequence both harrowing and somehow hilarious, Saori demands an explanation from Hori and the entire school board, led by an eerily quiet principal dealing with her own case of grief, but her pleas fall to deaf ears.
Like a robotic customer service rep who’s been trained to give only the most stock answers, the board collectively apologizes with no sincerity or meaning. Adding to the enigma is Minato’s strange acts: turning up with ashes in his lunchbox (is he involved with the fire?), cutting his hair for no reason and going as far as jumping out of his mother’s moving car.
The second segment Kore-eda (thankfully) doesn’t bother formally announcing with a title card follows Hori’s perspective, a responsible teacher acting with protective instincts who might be the victim of a misunderstanding. We also get a chance to spend more time with Minato’s friend and classmate Yori (Hiiragi Hinata), becoming acutely aware of his single abusive father with a drinking problem. Finally, the last chapter turns its focus onto the two kids, the conflicted Minato and the often bullied Yori, with the young duo—around tween-aged—building a sweet friendship, possibly something more, during their wild rural excursions and a card game they invented.
That “Monster” is primarily about the acceptance of a child as he is (and what rejection means and can do) feels like a trickster—not because the film shouldn’t be about that, but this one makes its intentions known way too late. In the aftermath, it feels like a coy, curious and even old-fashioned choice to make a kid’s budding sexual identity the mystery itself in an episodic structure (it should be noted that Sakamoto is mostly known as a TV writer), abandoning the opportunity to go deeper into the emotions of that development.
Despite this blemish, “Monster” manages to sink its claws into one’s conscience, thanks in large part to the movie’s young leads—like Farhadi, Kore-eda is an astute director of children, able to shepherd their performances in ways both precocious and disarmingly innocent. Elevating this unassuming picture is Ryûto Kondô’s tranquil lens (even during a fierce storm) and the late Ryuichi Sakamoto’s mournful score of high-keys and strings, coddling the tale soulfully as one of the final compositions of his peerless career.