Director : Jason Zada
Year Of Release : 2016
Principal Cast : Natalie Dormer, Taylor Kinney, Eoin Macken, Stephanie Vogt, Yukiyoshi Ozawa, Rina Takasaki, Noriko Sakura, Yuho Yamashita, James Owen.
Approx Running Time : 93 Minutes
Synopsis: A woman goes into Japan’s Suicide Forest to find her twin sister, and confronts supernatural terror.
If there’s a film genre that’s gone off the boil with Western audiences of late, it’s Japanese horror. More specifically, Japanese horror remade into Hollywood fare – Ringu became The Ring, Ju-On became The Grudge, Kairo became Pulse, Chakushin Ari became One Missed Call… you get the idea – so to find a straight-up Hollywood film appropriating an issue of Japanese culture, and not a particularly nice one, and making it “Western” influenced, is a little surprising. Our fascination with the Far East hasn’t really waned (did you know there’s a sequel to Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon on the way?) and watching The Forest you get the sense that the film-makers have tried to give the film a sense of isolation through culture that puts viewers at a state of unease, while trying to maintain the mystical exoticism of the story’s location.
To my mind, suicide isn’t the best hook for a film, and The Forest labours with accommodating one of the more tragic life outcomes as it parleys inherent melancholy into a supernatural nightmare. Game Of Thrones star Natalie Dormer plays Sara Price, an American woman whose twin sister, Jess (also Dormer) is feared dead in the Aokigahara Forest, in the shadows of Mount Fuji, Japan. Refusing to accept her sister’s apparent suicide, Sara travels to Japan where the begins to conduct her own search: meeting resistance and increasingly menacing events she’s unable to explain, Sara’s journey deep into the dark woods will make her family nightmare a venture into outright horror.
The Forest has met criticism in some quarters, primarily Japanese markets, which have blasted the film for “Whitening-up” a Japanese cultural issue and commercialising a significant problem. Critics of The Forest have labelled throwing Dormer into a leading role involving not only Japanese horror but the presence of suicide as a drawcard as little more than cultural appropriation similar to Costner’s Dances With Wolves or James Cameron’s Avatar. Honestly, though, those people shouldn’t concern themselves, largely because The Forest is inadequately spooky, clumsily directed and fairly liberal with plagiarising styles from past film-makers in the genre. Although it’s certainly well mounted and features some beautiful photography, the underlying story is lazy and generic, although blessed by an atmospheric sense of style.
Director Jason Zada reputedly investigated every aspect of the real-life forest’s accounts, particularly the suicides of dozens and dozens of people over the years, and came to the conclusion that there was no definitive explanation as to why people chose this particular forest to kill themselves. His research, no doubt, allowed him to add a hugely supernatural element to what is a heartbreaking sense of loss anyway, a darker aspect to an already depressing motif that really doesn’t work.
The Forest has so many rolling cliches it’s difficult to know where serious begins and irony ends. At one point, Sara recites a poem by American poet Sara Teasdale (who died by suicide, naturally), which her generically hunky expat-American companion, Aiden (Taylor Kinney) casually completes for her, the incongruity and stifling irony of which made me chuckle out loud. Never a good sign at a moment not designed to be amusing. The film is littered with moments such as this, moments of logic chasms and leaps in audience expectation undermining the tension inherent within the spooky old woods of the title. It’s frustrating and clumsy.
I’m not altogether convinced the screenwriters had anybody ask them why suicide needed to be the prime motivator to this story; there’s a genetic displeasure in dealing with suicide at the best of times, because it’s one of those taboo, unsavoury methods of a person’s demise in which a person makes the decision for themselves, rather than have it occur naturally or at the hands of another. The film makes a point of hammering down the relative tragedy of both Sara and Aiden’s lives, to make sure we have the seeds of possible death planted in our minds as we watch – it’s not subtle, that’s for sure – and Zada’s work when he’s not trying to be menacing or cavorting with the supernatural is actually quite pleasant. There’s a sadness to the film that overrides the motivation for it to exist in the first place, and Zada can’t quite step out from behind this to give the film a sense of its own propulsion. This is the problem in making a film with suicide at its core – people bring baggage to that of their own accord, and it colours their perception of the movie.
The Forest’s production design functions around misdirection, a common Hollywood style involving flashbacks, sudden jump-shocks from a “dream” or vision, and the usual flailing about in the darkness via torchlight to suddenly reveal a presence in the blink of an eye. The film has a few minor scares, and Natalie Dormer gives the limited character she plays her all – not to mention portraying both Sara and Jess, which is demanding on any actor – but The Forest lacks conviction, and more disconcertingly, tries to commodotize one of Japanese society’s least understood tragedies, that of suicide. Requisite sound design slam-bang and atmospheric cinematography aside, there’s little reason to invest time in The Forest, and even less to enjoy it.