An early draft of this review was originally published on December 21, 2023,
at Give Me Some Light on Substack, months before it appeared here.
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You’ve heard this line: “Be kind, for everyone you meet is fighting a hard battle.”

Typically, if you Google those words, you discover they’ve been attributed to all kinds of wise writers, including Plato. (Most probably, they first came from the author and minister Ian Maclaren.) Whatever the truth might be, I’d argue that, going forward, those words should be linked to a download of filmmaker Hirokazu Kore-eda’s Monster, which is one of the most absorbing dramatizations of that wisdom I can think of. Every single character in this movie is fighting a hard battle, and very few of them ever learn what their neighbors’ battles are really about.

For the last 30 minutes of this film, I was increasingly worried that the tangle of tragic storylines would be resolved in some far-too-convenient way, something that would feel contrived and disappointing.

Kore-eda, a master of working with child actors, gets magnificent performances from Hinata Hiiragi and Soya Kurokawa. [Image from the Well Go USA trailer.]

Just so you know — that doesn’t happen. Not at all. The way it does resolve may have you wishing, after the fact, that they had contrived some easier, more satisfying resolution. This is a heartbreaker in so many ways, and it will leave you with just as many questions as answers.

Kore-eda is doing some of the best work of his impressive career here, reminding us that he may be the world’s best director of child actors. His youngest actors here are every bit as affecting as the adults, delivering delicate and nuanced performances.

He did this most effectively in 2004’s Nobody Knows, a film that often replays in my mind two decades later for the harrowing emotional ordeal the audience experiences watching a family of young children try to survive their mother’s sudden disappearance. In 2018, as Bong Joon-ho’s Parasite was earning global accolades and setting a tremendous precedent for international cinema at the Oscars, Shoplifters was quietly moving audiences to tears and, for me, standing out as an even more affecting work about a family scheming their way to survival at the poverty line. Let’s not talk about The Truth, his first venture outside of South Korean storytelling, which starred Juliette Binoche, Ethan Hawke, and Katherine Deneuve—an intriguing misfire. He came right back with Broker, and my heart melted all over again.

Saori (Sakura Ando) tries to solve the mystery in the wounded silences of her son Minato (Soya Kurokawa). [Image from the Well Go USA trailer.]

Monster is more challenging than any of them, in that it shows us the same central events several times from different characters’ points of view, and the spans of timeline covered in each point of view varies, leaving us scrambling to figure out how the stories line up.

We first follow the story of a widowed mother, Saori (Sakura Ando), as she tries to figure out whether or not her grieving son Minato (Soya Kurokawa) is telling the truth about being bullied by his fifth-grade teacher Mr. Hori (Eita Nagayama). She is achingly sincere and devoted to her son’s well-being. But what do you do if the school administration seems uncooperative, even though your boy has come home bleeding and claiming that he’s been told that his human brain was replaced with a pig’s brain? Both Ando and Kurokawa are win our hearts, if not our heads, right away.

Saori is a quiet, observant student… until the injustices he sees push him to a breaking point. [Image from the Well Go USA trailer.]

Then, we get the story again, this time from the point of view of Mr. Hori. And very quickly it becomes apparent that things are much more complicated than we thought. Hori is socially awkward, his body language unsettling, and it is rumored that he’s been a customer at a local “hostess bar,” which goes up in flames in the film’s opening moments. Is Hori innocent of his students’ accusations of abuse? Did he draw blood? Are we going to have to choose sides in this dispute?

Hold on — there is still so much more to learn: from the point of view of the school principal (Yuko Tanaka), who is still shaking from a trauma that left her with excruciating secrets; and from the point of view of Yori (Hinata Hiiragi), a preternaturally resilient and cheerful boy who is a magnet for bullying by his classmates and his abusive father.

If that doesn’t sound like enough drama for one movie — and it should be — just wait. There’s a natural disaster coming.

Mr. Hori (Eita Nagayama) finds his career — perhaps even his sanity — challenged by accusations of abuse. [Image from the Well Go USA trailer.]

If I were reading this review, I would be skeptical that this will add up to an unbearably contrived and melodramatic film. And maybe that will be your experience. I see that some of my favorite critics find it too convoluted, too frustrating, and too intent on moving us with shocking twists. One even compared it to the notoriously lurid web of storylines in Paul Haggis’s Crash!

I don’t know — it worked for me. In Crash, everything felt like it came with a hashtag of a hot-button social issue. I suppose you could pin social-commentary hashtags on these storylines too. (I won’t say which ones, as that would involve heavy spoilers.) But I believe in these characters; I’m moved by these performances; and as I find myself frequently horrified at how complicated dramas at the school where I teach are oversimplified by those who aren’t getting what they want, I feel deeply invested in each character’s struggle to cope with hardship and their crucial need to see a bigger picture.

Yuko Tanaka as a trauma-burdened school principal. [Image from the Well Go USA trailer.]

I care about Saori’s maternal anguish and moved by her dedication to her son. I’m unsettled by the plausibility of Mr. Hori’s Kafka-esque nightmare. And I can hardly fathom the principal’s private heartache. But the movie’s most compelling storytelling comes in its attentiveness to these two young boys, Minato and Yori, who are being forced to grow up too quickly, who are dealing with so much loss at home, and who now have to face violence within their school and further injustice stemming from ignorance of the adults who, while they’re earnestly seeking to help, have missed too many essential details to understand the nature of the children’s suffering.

Here’s to Kore-eda, the master of filmmaking about children. I don’t know that any of his films since Nobody Knows twenty years ago have inspired in me such deep empathy for the children we see onscreen, which has the meaningful effect of strengthening my curiosity and attentiveness to young people around me.

Yori (Hiniata Hiiragi), a magnet for bullies and a victim of parental abuse, finds creative ways to cope with persecution. [Image from the Well Go USA trailer.]

As a matter of fact, when the movie began I was already greatly aggravated by the ongoing commentary of two young boys who were sitting behind me, to say nothing of the constant sound effects of their vigorous snacking. What were they doing here, by themselves, plowing through bags full of snacks and talking about their friends and their phones at a movie that will not typically show up on the radar of boys their age?

But as the film continued, and I became more absorbed by its braided dramas, I simultaneously found my aggravation dissolving and turning into curiosity. Could it be that I started caring?

Minato and Yori decorate a hideaway they’ve found in the woods. [Image from the Well Go USA trailer.]

Later, when the film took a stronger interest in the secret lives of the boys onscreen, I heard a few stray comments from the boys sitting behind me. One of them asked his friend why in the world he’d chosen this movie. The other said he’d read about it somewhere, and that he thought it was based on a true story. (I haven’t found any evidence of that, but the plausibility of the plot’s conundrums has much to do with why the film is compelling.) This sharpened my curiosity, and the more I listened to their interactions, the more I became convinced that one of them had very strong, very personal reasons for his attraction to this film. I can’t say more without revealing plot spoilers. Suffice it to say that this is a film about secrets that seem too scary to reveal, and when we feel lonely in the burdens we carry, we will be drawn to stories about others in similar circumstances. Art can help us bear heavy hardships by comforting us with, at the very least, a sense that we are not alone.

And while I’m still wrestling with some questions about how Monster’s storylines intersect, and where exactly each character has ended up by the end, I’m going to be thinking about their heartaches for years to come. I’m going to think of it whenever I’m meeting with a student whose sufferings I cannot decipher, and whose future seems to be largely in the hands of the adults who have to make decisions for them largely on guesswork. And I’m going to be thinking about the two boys who sat behind me in the theater, and the fact that at least one of them felt so personally invested in the film. I’m going to wonder if the two of them are still friends, if their friendship has what it takes to survive the challenges they will have to navigate.