Tuesday, April 26, 2016

Cult-Movie Review: The Forest (2016)

[Watch out for spoilers]

There exists in Japan a forest of roughly fourteen square miles, near Mount Fuji, where -- on average -- thirty people a year commit suicide.

In some especially bad years as many as seventy-eight unhappy people take their own lives in that forest. Suicides usually tick up in the end of March -- the end of the fiscal year in Japan -- and the forest is known as both “The Suicide Forest’ and “The Sea of Trees.” 

But the forest’s given name is Aokigahara, and it is reputed to be the home of many “yurei,” or angry ghosts.  Some believers insist the spirits dwell under the forest in subterranean ice caverns.

A haunted suicide forest is the perfect setting for a horror movie, of course, and in the past six years, producers have taken advantage of the forest’s lore and location. Forest of the Living Dead (2010), Grave Halloween (2013) and now The Forest (2016), all revolve around the myths and mysteries of Aokigahara.

Natalie Dormer stars (as twins) in The Forest. She plays both Sara and Jess Price in the film. Jess is the slightly sketchy, independent sister who disappears in the forest. Sara is the buttoned down, somewhat haughty sister who goes in search of Jess when she disappears.

The first thing to understand about the film -- and admittedly, this may color your desire to see it -- is that it plays very much like an American remake of a Japanese horror film, circa 2002 – 2008.

This was the era of The Ring (2002), The Grudge (2004), Dark Water (2005) and Pulse (2006), as you might recall. The trend burned out with some lousy movies like One Missed Call (2008) and The Eye (2008), but it’s been virtually a decade since we’ve seen a big horror movie of this particular type. 

Of course, The Forest is not a remake of a Japanese film; merely a horror film set in Japan, and one that interfaces with Japanese mythology and culture. Importantly, the film conforms to all the style and conventions of the remake format of a decade ago.  So if you’re feeling nostalgic for that time and those films, you may appreciate the film more than others.  If, contrarily, you think that format is pretty used up, then you may find The Forest a long, familiar tale.

I fall somewhere between those two poles.

I appreciate how The Forest revives all the tropes of the format (and I’ll enumerate these below), and I admire the film’s central conceit involving twins, and the connection that such siblings share. On the downside, the film’s final sting-in-the-tail/tale is atrocious, and a big letdown after a somber and effective finale.

Ten or eleven years ago, The Forest would have had a major theatrical release in America (and my fellow bloggers would have complained about its PG-13 horror…), and yet the film feels curiously out-of-step today.  I still would grant the film a limited or modest recommendation based on its intriguing, final act bait-and-switch scenario, and the fascinating real life context behind its setting.

You won’t get lost in The Forest, but you’ll wander down a memorable trail or two.

“Spirits cannot rest there. They come back angry.”

Sara Price (Dormer) awakes from a nightmare about her identical twin, Jess (Dormer). She learns that her sister, a school teacher in Japan, has traveled into the Aokigaraha Forest, a “suicide” forest. Most who enter it, never return.

Sara bids farewell to her husband, Rob (Eoin Macken) and travels to Japan. She resolves to find her sister, and knows she is still alive.  Since they were born, Jess and Sara have shared a kind of sixth sense. They know when the other is in danger. So Sara feels powerfully that Jess is still alive. 

An Australian travel writer, Aiden (Taylor Kinney) offers to escort Sara inside the forest, with the caveat that he gets to report her story.  She agrees to his terms, and with a park ranger, they begin their odyssey inside the forest of ghosts, or yurei. 

The ranger is concerned about Sara because he senses that she is sad, and the spirits in the forest are known to play tricks on those who carry heavy hearts.

At the end of a long day of walking, Jess’s tent is discovered…empty.  Sara wants to stay the night in the forest, even though it would be extremely dangerous, to wait for her sister’s return. Aiden agrees to remain with Sara in the woods, and a night of terror commences.

Sara is haunted by visions of a Japanese school girl, and also an event from her childhood which did not unfold as she has long believed it did…

“If you get lost, and you have sadness in your heart, they will use it against you.”

As noted in my introduction, The Forest feels very much like a Japanese horror film remake from about ten to fifteen years ago. 

All the “standards” or conventions are present.

For instance, we get, in the lead role, a female star (like Naomi Watts, Sarah Michelle Gellar, Jennifer Connelly, Kristen Bell, Jessica Alba) whose primary role involves the investigation of the supernatural.

In many such cases the supernatural specter involved adopts the physical appearance of a Japanese woman. Here, the female star – Dormer – interfaces with the supernatural and encounters a tricky spirit who takes on the form of a school girl several times.

As is the case in many of these earlier films, the supernatural evil can “take” or kill a person simply because they encounter it, not because of any vice-precedes-slice-and-dice equation.  Go to the house in The Grudge, and you will die.  Use your cell phone or technology in The Pulse, and you expose yourself to danger.  Watch Samara’s tape in The Ring, and in seven days, you’re pretty much doomed. 

In The Forest, Sara is repeatedly warned not to enter the forest; that she will expose herself to tricky, murderous spirits. She enters the forest anyway.  She is not a transgressor. She does not try to desecrate or exploit the forest. Instead, she merely goes “off the path,” thus making herself vulnerable to the wicked apparitions dwelling there.

In many of these films there is also a kind of supportive but ultimately useless male secondary character hanging about. Think of the roles played by Martin Henderson in The Ring or Jason Behr in The Grudge for a corollary of Taylor Kinney’s role here. 

Given these familiar characters and tropes, The Forest feels very much like a remake of a film never made, or a sequel to one never made.  One might even term it an homage or pastiche of the Japanese horror remake form.  On that basis, I find it interesting.

I have read some viewers term The Forest a “white wash” because it concerns a Caucasian woman and not a Japanese woman interfacing with the suicide forest.  I certainly sympathize with that viewpoint, especially given the nature of Hollywood history, and the absurdity of casting Scarlett Johansson in Ghost in the Shell. 

However, I would argue that The Forest, at least in terms of its context, finds a good reason for sending a westerner to this forest in Japan.  That reason isn’t even that old horror trope that I have written about from time to time: “Americans Abroad.”  In those kind of horror films, arrogant Americans in foreign countries run afoul of an ethnic, non-western supernatural world they refuse to believe in (see: The House Where Evil Dwells [1982]).

That aspect of the tale certainly informs some elements of The Forest, but overall I believe the film offers a unique viewpoint that requires, essentially, for Sara to be a westerner.

Basically, my argument is as follows: Suicide is a huge problem in Japan. It is a much bigger problem there, for instance, than in America. The spirits in the forest take advantage of those who are sad, or who are seeking to die.

It is a place to exploit personal weakness.

Dormer’s character, Sara, however, is not suicidal. She is sad, instead, because she comes from a history of (and culture of) denial. 

That denial is reckoned, in the film in the very specifics of Sara’s childhood tragedy. She has believed for her whole life that her parents died in a car accident.  Jess, by contrast, saw and faced the truth. 

Her father murdered her mother with a gun, and then shot and killed himself. 

Rather than face this problem, the family buried it.  The family denied the truth and made up a convenient and palatable excuse for the terrible violence.

The same denial exists in our Western culture today. In America in 2015, for example, more Americans died violently at the hands of toddlers with guns than they did from the violent acts of foreign terrorists. 

But no changes in gun safety laws have come about. Instead our culture continues to deny that we have a problem. We also have many mass shootings a year, in addition to accidental deaths.  Yet we think having more armed people is the answer to the crisis.  This is precisely the truth that Sara denies in the film. 

So if mental health and suicide are vexing the Japanese people, the America people are grappling with their denial of the truth about gun safety and mental health.

The forest exploits Sara’s western weakness -- denial -- in the same way that exploits the weakness of the Japanese people. Sara discusses, explicitly, how Jess “looks at the dark stuff,” and Sara “looks away.”  Jess decides to “struggle” with her “demons,” whereas Sara buries hers, and suppresses them. 

Only one character survives he encounter in the Suicide Forest, and denial plays a role in that survival or demise.  

The Forest cleverly leads us to believe that Jess is the troubled sister, the one in danger from the forest.  In fact -- as people keep telling Sara -- she is the one who has a problem with reality.  “If you see anything strange,” she is warned, it is in her head, not present in the flesh. But Sara has a problem detecting what is real because she has always intentionally looked away from things that trouble her. She has closed her eyes to them.

This conceit, played with twin sisters, is handled well, and there’s even a call-out to literary history in the film’s mention of poet Sara Teasdale (1884-1933), who also committed suicide.

There are enough good ideas in The Forest to make it worthy of study and deeper analysis, but the film nonetheless ends with a lame final scare that cheapens the sobriety and seriousness of the entire film.  This is one of those horror movies in which a fade-out 30 seconds earlier would literally change one’s entire perception of the film.

Although the terrible ending exemplifies a “can’t see the forest for the trees” brand of thinking, the rest of The Forest is intriguing and thoughtful enough to merit at least one screening.

1 comment:

  1. I believe the argument is less that The Forest is whitewashing its main character (after all, it hasn't replaced a Japanese character with a Caucasian one) but rather that it is utterly tasteless to take such a tragic real life and on-going epidemic and exploit it for cheap thrills aimed directly at a western audience. The suicide forest is not a topic Japanese people are amused or entertained by, it is a topic they approach with great seriousness and solemnity. I'm not saying it's not ripe for a horror movie, but as a cheap jump scare movie made by Westerners for Westerners, I think there's little denying this movie is exploitative in the extreme (and not in the Cannibal Holocaust sense of the word exploitative)


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