What’s it About?
A woman goes into Japan’s Suicide Forest to find her twin sister, and confronts supernatural terror.
Directed by Jason Zada
“Do not leave the path”
There is an immense ocean of trees at the Northwest base of Mount Fuji, in Japan, that has been eeriely named “The Suicide Forest.” It is a place where an epidemic of sorts is taking place. According to FUSION writer, David Matthews, suicide is the leading cause of death for Japanese men between the ages of 20 to 44. Even more so problematic is that teen suicides are on the rise. In 2003 alone, 105 bodies were recovered (Source: Wikipedia) breaking the record of 78 in 2002. In 2010, 200 or so people attempted suicide there, with at least 54 succeeding, with hanging or drug overdose being the common method of self-disposal.
Jason Zada’s supernatural thriller “The Forest,” is not the first film to have the Aokigahara Forest as a location, to have a movie take place in. There has been Gus van Sant’s “Sea of Trees” (with Matthew McConaughey and Ken Watanabe ), “Grave Halloween,” from 2013 and “Forest of the Living Dead,” from 2010. Zada’s film stars Natalie Dormer (Game of Thrones) as Sara, a young woman who travels to Japan to seek her missing school-teacher twin sister, who was reported to have been last seen entering the aforementioned “suicide forest.”
Sara, once in Japan, visits her sister’s school, and speaks to the dean of the establishment as well as a student who freaks out thinking that Sara is actually Jess, her instructor. When numerous questions, inquiries and going through her sister’s apartment (where she finds a picture of them as young girls) bear no fruit, Sara decides to try Aokigahara forest next, where she checks into a small, quaint yet creepy hotel, in order to try and look for Jess on her own. She comes across and meets an online journalist, at a nearby bar, named Aiden, played by Taylor Kinney (Chicago Fire, Vampire Diaries), Aiden, interested and captivated by Sara’s search for her sister, asks if he could chronicle her search and do a story about her, Jess and the suicide forest.
Sara agrees and as a backstory to her relationship with Jess, she tells Aiden about a horrible night in the past where her and Jess suffered the loss of their parents to a terrible car accident right in front of their home (although, that is not what we see on screen, so Sara lies to Aiden about the calamity. Or is that what we are lead to believe?). The Forest does really well with the Sara / Jess dynamic and it is a strong core that lifts the film above it’s eventual and oft banal conventions, despite having such natural beauty surrounding a ghostly and psychological central character arc.
Apparently, Sara does not see first hand what Jess saw and Jess has had to bear the burden of seeing what really happened to their mom and dad, making Jess the more stronger and darker twin. With this material Dormer manages to rise above and make a compelling case to keep watching the events unfold.
Things move forward with a good set up, decent premise, and some moody atmosphere accentuated by wonderful photography and composition from everything to Tokyo’s bright cityscapes to the lush and scenic mountain forest at Aokigahara. Zada, with dialog and exposure, keen-fully delves in cultural territory peering into differences and disparities with a quick and serious tone. But, it is all fleeting and somewhat moot once the movie changes focus to the forest. When Aiden and Sara recruit a hesitant guide to take them into the forest, the movie clearly seems to try too hard to maintain that momentum, previously set up in the first 40 minutes.
Whatever mood and elegant insight (both with characterization and visually) the film had, is lost once Zada takes his material, written by no less than 3 people, into the forest itself. Dormer, alongside Kinney, does get a chance to emote beneficially but when J-horror tropes start to rear it’s ugly head, the plot becomes pretty rote and near damn confusing and un-intelligible. Zada and the writers open some interesting doors as the Forest becomes it’s own entity in the last act, but just about at every turn, the film is sabotaged by the pseudo-psychological, by the numbers play by play. Loud jumps scares, shrieking demon-like phantasms, fake outs, weird forest noises and “Blair Witch” like machinations abound and Dormer’s pretty solid performance turns into a sleepwalking bag of empty tricks.
I’m still not sure what Zada and crew were going for in the last act and the so called “twist” is rather anemic, forcing the viewer to actually ponder, with no resolution in sight, the various outcomes that are supposedly open to “interpretation.” Whether Sara and Jess are actually 2 separate people or if (and this is stretch since there is very little to really solidify it) Jess is a splinter of Sara, and they are indeed just one person. And when Jess is released from The Forest (and we get NO explanation as to the rhyme or reason to her actions other than she may be suicidal, but still manages to be alive and well by the finale) and Sara becomes a ghost forest- demon or whatever, we are just too damn uninterested by everything at that point and we feel duped. But thankfully, as poorly executed and full of insinuations as it is, the running time is quite brief. Perhaps that being the problem as well. It’s as if they had half a story and it was only good enough for about an hour of our time.
“The Forest” starts off solid enough, with a good performance from Dormer, some mood and atmosphere, within not only the Forest, but with the beautifully captured Tokyo and surrounding landscape. Eventually, the ball is dropped by that last act and The Forest morphs into an un-scary and un-shocking J Horror wannabe. With no bite or substance, other than Dormer and the interesting springboard of a backstory, Zada’s film unfortunately becomes a short, muddled and mediocre affair, that I really wanted to like much more.
With the forest and psychological metaphors showing so overtly on it’s sleeve, the movie just doesn’t immerse us enough into that other-worldly realm with enough gusto. There are cool ideas here, but it’s a better movie to just look at than experience. Consider only as a rental for a one and done. The only real strength is the casting of Dormer, but even she collapses from too many cliches overtaking the story and her focus. Another lesser strength, is the engaging cinematography that captures, with alarming mood and definity, the actual forest. But it is definitely a missed opportunity, in my humble opinion.
“Your life is a precious gift from your parents. Think about them and the rest of your family. You don’t have to suffer alone.”