The Forest (Jason Zada, 2016)
The first thing you should know about The Forest is that Aokigahara Forest is absolutely a real place, the mythology surrounding it as depicted in the movie is spot-on, and it has been used as the basis of a number of Asian films (most notably for western viewers, Forest of Death, Danny Pang’s 2007 solo jaunt–though Pang relocated the forest to Thailand for the sake of his story). That may help this movie’s effectiveness for you. And to be fair to The Forest, it is a competently-made thriller with a couple of really good jump shots. However, there are a few things about the movie that left me, no pun intended, hanging.
Plot: In as confusing a way as possible, the beginning of this film tells us that Jess Price (Mockingjay‘s Natalie Dormer), an American teaching English in a Japanese middle school, found herself drawn to Aokigahara, the legendary “suicide forest” at the base of Mt. Fuji, and she was last seen going into it. Her twin sister Sara (also played by Dormer) flies to Japan and tries to find someone who will take her into the forest to search for her sister, but the locals just keep warning her not to go into the forest, or if she does, to always stay on the path. Finally, at a run-down hostel on the edge of the forest, she meets Aiden (Zero Dark Thirty‘s Taylor Kinney), an expat American travel writer who operates out of Tokyo. Aiden promises to be her guide in return for Sara allowing him to cover the story of her search for Jess. She agrees, and accompanied by park ranger Michi (Fireflies: River of Light‘s Yokiyoshi Ozawa), the two of them head into the forest to search for Jess. After hours of hiking, they come upon Jess’ tent. Against Michi’s advice, Sara insists on staying at the tent until Jess comes back, and after some dithering, Aiden decides to stay with her. And in the forest at night, Sara finds out that maybe those legends about Aokigahara forest being home to angry spirits that make you see things might not just be legends…
All well and good, and indeed had the script perhaps been a bit tighter, this might have
been a much more effective movie than it is. But man, the script we got has more split ends than an Australian mixtape from the eighties. Who’s the salaryman on the train that stares at Sara the entire trip and then is never seen again? And I realize now that all of the other unanswered questions tie into the climax of the film, which makes them all spoilery (and, of course, all the more frustrating). That said, if you ignore the script–watch the movie on mute, maybe–it’s actually very nicely shot, and Aokigahara Forest is beautiful. (I’m sure the extreme close-up shots of roots and spiderwebs and things are supposed to have some sort of deep meaning. And maybe this is just me expecting a shallow movie and thus missing the depth, but I didn’t notice them connecting to much of anything.) But Mattias Troelstrup’s cinematography alone can’t carry this flick, and as much as I wanted to like it, I have to recommend you give this one a pass, or at least wait to catch it on Netflix. **
BONUS VIDEO: A short, Vice-produced documentary about Aokigahara Forest.