Every year there is one film that screens at TIFF that gets talked about more for its length rather than its content. This year it was Kiyoshi Kurosawa’s film Penance and its four and a half hour running time that received such buzz. Originally conceived as a miniseries for the WOWOW network in Japan, the film has been making the rounds on the festival circuit as a complete 270 minute film. Though a four hour plus film may seem like a chore, Penance was a breeze to sit through largely due to the way Kurosawa unfolds the central mystery within the plot.
Asako Adachi (Kyoko Koizumi) finds her life turned upside when her daughter, Emili, is assaulted and murdered. Though the killer got away, Emili’s four friends, Sae, Maki, Akiko, and Yuka all saw the killer’s face. Fearful for their lives the girls refuse to share this information with the police, each claiming that they have no memory of the incident. After six months with no breaks in the case, Asako sits the girls down and makes them promise to either assist her in finding Emili’s killer, or endure an act of penance for their cowardice.
Fast-forward fifteen years later, the four friends lives have taken vastly different paths, but all are still haunted by the events surrounding Emili’s death. Sae (Yu Aoi) refuses to accept womanhood, and has problems getting close to men. She eventually ends up marrying a man (Mirai Maoriyama) who has more than a few dark and twisted secrets. Maki (Eiko Koike) became a school teacher who is a tad overprotective of her students. When a knife-wielding manic disrupts the swim class, Maki method of defending the students is deemed as too excessive by some of the parents and students.
Akiko (Sakura Ando) is the most outwardly disturbed of the four women. An introvert, Akiko begins to suspect something sinister is afoot after her brother (Ryo Kase) unexpectedly returns home with a wife and stepdaughter. Yuka (Chizuru Ikewai) owns a flower shop and has a thing for married men. When she discovers that her sister’s husband is associated with the police, her childhood obsession with police officers is re-ignited and she puts her seduction plans in motion.
Told over the course of five chapters, Kurosawa gives each woman their own unique story. The only constant being the appearance of Asako in each chapter. Asako’s own story is told in the final chapter. Each chapter offers a unique take on the notion of penance. As a result the film runs the gamut from physiological horror to dark comedy. However, the film never feels disjointed, and moves at a surprisingly brisk pace.
The two standout segments in the film are the stories involving Sae and Akiko. In both of these tales we see Kurosawa brilliantly walking the line between horror and drama. The way he manipulates light and sound only helps to enhance the creepiness of the stories. It allows Kurosawa to subtly allude to a spirit based force that may be at play throughout each chapter. If there is one section that is slightly disappointing it comes in the final chapter.
While there are several great scenes that harken back to Hitchcock, the melodrama in the final chapter is laid on way too thick. Plus you can see one of the big reveals coming from a mile away. Fortunately for the film though, by time the final segment hits, you are already well on board so the impact is minimal.
All of the actresses in the film do a solid job in their given roles. Kyoko Koizumi in particular is fantastic as Asako. She is joy to watch whenever she is on screen. Throughout the film Koizumi displays Asako’s cool vengeance driven side, her nurturing maternal side, and even a side that is consumed with regret and jealousy. It is the combination of Koizumi’s performance and Kurosawa’s direction that allows Penance to sustain its lengthy running time without ever feeling long or losing the audiences’ attention.