Sunday, April 24, 2016

Review: The Forest

Starring: Natalie Dormer, Taylor Kinney, Yukiyoshi Ozawa
Directed by: Jason Zada
Language: English, Japanese
Country: USA
Runtime: 93 minutes
Rating: PG-13

The Forest is a film that was potentially doomed from its conception. The tale is based around a very real place, Aokigahara Forest, located at the base of Mount Fuji in Japan. This forest is known as a destination for people wanting to commit suicide. As many interested in Japanese culture will know, suicide is a very serious problem in Japan. It's not all visual kei, cute Lolita girls or strange game shows. Setting a horror movie in such a place is highly distasteful because it seems to be making light of the suicide epidemic. The forest is thought to be haunted by yurei, the angry spirits of those who've died in it's midst. The mystery and supernatural forces wrapped in the folklore of such a place leads a plethora of possible plot points. However, those potential stories need to be respectful of the culture and everything that comes with it.

Another problem The Forest faced was being lumped into the white washing of Hollywood. The lead actors are both Caucasian playing Caucasian characters. Some felt that the movie should have been about Asian characters exploring an Asian landscape and societal issue. However, this is a film about a foreign woman going to look for her equally foreign sister who happens to be living and working in Japan. The main characters weren't written to be Asian in the first place. 

'A woman goes into Japan's Suicide Forest to find her twin sister, and confronts supernatural terror.' [Source: IMDB]

Let's put aside the controversy that The Forest has been plagued by. The cast should be relatively sound. Natalie Dormer is quite popular for her work in The Tudors, Game of Thrones and The Hunger Games. Taylor Kinney is The Vampire Diaries, Zero Dark Thirty and Chicago Fire. Both have a relatively strong fan base that should have drawn in quite a few viewers despite the controversy. If nothing else, there would have been people who'd want to watch just to see what everyone was complaining about. 

The film opens with Sara receiving a phone call that her sister has been reported missing after a class trip to Mount Fuji. Jess, Sara's identical twin, was living and working in Japan as an English teacher. After discussing it with her husband and receiving a second phone call, Sara decides to travel alone to Japan in order to search for her sister. It was believed that Jess went into Aokigahara to commit
suicide. Once she arrives in Japan, Sara learns that the locals are reluctant to let her go into the forest. She meets Aiden, a reporter who has clearance to go into the forest with the help of Michi, a forest ranger. The trio sets out into the forest to look for Jess with the forewarning from Michi that the forest can play tricks on the mind.

This is where the film begins to fail. The scriptwriters began by trying to develop Sara into a character with real personality by giving us some time following her before she reaches the forest. Any of this development was cast aside once she reaches Aokigahara. Natalie Dormer tries her best to breathe life into Sara and by extension, Jess. Sadly, the other twin wasn't given any real screen time except in flashbacks. What was Jess' motivation? Why would she want to commit suicide? We're shown that she's on anxiety medication, but what person living abroad for the first time wouldn't be facing a bit of anxiety?

Aiden is also given no real time to develop as a character. Here is this mysterious reporter who frequently goes into the forest. What's his motivations? Is he hiding a sinister secret? Are the real
monsters human instead of yurei? The writers seem to have forgotten that he even needs a better personality. We're just expected to ignore the lack of personality as they get deeper in the forest.

Rather than developing a psychological horror, the filmmakers choose to use jumpy moments that don't result in any scares. The landscape itself could have led to quite a few intense moments. If you've ever been out in a dense forest at night, you're aware of how difficult it is to find your way. Disorientation, confusion and the sheer darkness would be enough to lead to horrifying moments. Add the additional psychological terror of knowing that every bump in the night could be the ghosts the locals believe in. Sadly, the writers didn't take these factors into consideration even after the director visited the real Aokigahara.

In the end, we're left to wonder why Jess would have gone into the forest in the first place. Was she suicidal? Why didn't Sara know what her twin's state of mind was? One could assume that they were on speaking terms despite the 6000 mile difference. It's not that hard to skype, call, email or text. If the bond between the sisters been elaborated on, the motivations would have driven the plot further along. The writing would have to be stronger for this to be possible. Instead, we get a thin plot with the usual jumpy moments thrown in to try to make the teenage audience happy. It's rather sad that this one couldn't grow past the controversy and be a strong film. The only real highlight is Natalie Dormer.

Rating: 2.5/5

No comments: