While it doesn’t cohere into anything more substantial than a collection of self-loathing anxieties, Japanese teledrama Penance is effectively unnerving on a scene-for-scene basis thanks to writer/director Kiyoshi Kurosawa’s preference for ambience over character-driven drama.
Kurosawa (Cure, Pulse), the Ingmar Bergman of contemporary horror filmmakers, accordingly subordinates grieving mother Asako’s (Kyoko Koizumi) search for her pre-teen daughter Emili’s (Hazuki Kimura) killer to a thorough examination of the traumas that bind Asako to Emili’s four childhood gal pals.
Kurosawa’s protagonists prove more interesting than their character arcs since all five women inevitably allow their monstrous self-images to dictate their behavior. Watching timid nurse Sae (Yu Aoi) pose like a human doll for sociopath husband Takahiro (Mirai Moriyama) is only so interesting — their relationship is always one confrontation away from a tidy resolution.
But Sae’s mute desperation is convincing thanks to the deliberately creeping pace of Kurosawa’s characteristically immersive dialogue scenes, particularly when Sae turns down Takahiro’s marriage proposal by bluntly telling him that she’s never had a period: “I’m rejecting adult womanhood, so I can’t have children.” Those words linger thanks to Aoi’s matter-of-fact line delivery, and Moriyama’s stoic reply: “If anything, I’m the defective merchandise.”
You can also sense real loss and palpable estrangement in the faraway stares and pregnant pauses that punctuate Asako’s exchanges with Emili’s friends, like when Asako passes judgment on Sae without even looking at her. You may not care what happens to Sae, but you won’t be able to shake off Asako’s recriminatory silence.