The word ‘confession’ carries a great deal of weight in Western culture; in religion, it goes hand in hand with the concept of sin; in the secular world, it’s generally accompanied by legal action. It comes in as many shapes and forms as there are people to make it – from Okay, yeah I ate the last piece of cake to I’m having an affair with your boss and worse. It can ruin lives and relationships, damage trust, hurt others and expose our darkest secrets. And yet we keep doing it, because the driving motivator behind the desire to confess is the possibility of forgiveness. Confession alleviates guilt. Admitting to our wrongs means acknowledging our own culpability, and in taking responsibility for our actions we stand some kind of hope of making amends, of having someone or something allow us to even out the balance.
But what happens when the wrong is not ours to own, or to confess? Alan Mak and Andrew Lau’s Confession of Pain takes this concept and makes it into a solid and tense revenge thriller that is just a little deeper than it looks. Thirty-something detective Yau Kim Bong (Takeshi Kaneshiro) is working violent crimes, and it’s a gritty, heartbreaking job that he and his team, led by Lau Ching Hei (Tony Leung), deal with in not always completely ethical ways. Unfortunately, Bong doesn’t know the meaning of heartbreak until he returns home one evening to find his girlfriend has committed suicide. Unable to understand or cope, Bong soon quits the force and becomes an alcoholic, supplementing his new lifestyle with a side job as a private investigator.
This is until his old partner’s wealthy father-in-law is murdered and Hei’s wife, suspicious of the details of the murder, asks him to investigate the case. Bong can understand the pain of losing someone without explanation and takes the job, liaising unofficially with Hei and the police and trying to sober up as he works to uncover the truth.
Of course, Agatha Christie style who-done-it’s and basic narrative cues dictate that if there’s a murder, then the murderer is likely to be someone in the room and not the kid who delivered the pizza to the neighbours next door, so it’s not that hard to work out who the real killer is. But Confessions isn’t out to surprise – as evidenced by the early, flashy (or perhaps I should say splashy) dramatic re-enactment of the crime in question – it’s out to give you a glimpse of the ugly underbelly of frustrated human emotion. Lau and his scriptwriter Felix Chong, using a ‘contrast and compare’ set-up in the film between Kaneshiro’s slightly younger, salvageable character and Leung’s older, too-late-to-change Hei, seem to be exploring the idea that you can’t make something right that you didn’t make wrong in the first place, not without going somewhere very dark.
Sure, the two characters’ situations are somewhat different, but choice – the story seems to be saying – is the path to salvation. Bong’s pain over his girlfriend’s death is very visible, externalised in a way; Hei on the other hand has obviously worked to make his world as perfect as possible and in the process hidden and internalised his own pain until he has made himself the one thing that Bong isn’t – redeemable.
It’s this difference that carries the emotional load of the film and brings sensitivity and depth to a plotline that might have otherwise been a little stock-standard. Leung as revenge artist Hei has flashes of chilling brilliance without alienating his humanity, and Kaneshiro for his part proves more than capable of carrying the story while holding his own against such an effortlessly good actor as Leung. The Lau/Mak directing team handle the content with a great deal of sympathy, and balance it well with moments of subtle tension that any decent thriller requires. Lai Yiu-Fai’s cinematography is a gorgeous stage for the crime and its fallout, warm human undertones against remote greens and blues with feature moments that blur the lines between the constructed and the actual realities of the characters, and Chan Kwong Wing’s musical score completes the picture with aching and evocative refrains, softening some of the sharper edges.
As thrillers go, this isn’t the tightest ‘good cop, bad cop’ show Lau’s ever filmed (not mentioning any names) but it’s certainly of a calibre one feels justified to expect. With its slightly low-key approach to its drama, and its sedate unfolding of truths – even the eventual climax is something of a fitting emotional understatement – this is not a film that need ever need apologise for what it is; good, solid genre entertainment, with a capable cast and crew and enough originality to make it inarguably worth watching.