Thursday, February 25, 2016

The Forest: Hiking and Xenophobia

Natalie Dormer in The Forest.

Another day, another bad horror movie.

Or so my life has seemed anyway, as I unwisely took in Jason Zada’s The Forest following on the heels of William Brent Bell’s disappointing The Boy. The Forest, Zada’s feature debut, is about a successful, well-adjusted woman (Natalie Dormer) who goes looking for her troubled twin sister (also Natalie Dormer) in Japan’s “Suicide Forest,” Aokigahara. The “Suicide Forest,” or “Sea of Trees” as it’s colloquially known, is a real place and the site of anywhere from 50-100 deaths a year. It’s the subject of both a popular 20-minute documentary from VICE and the 2015 Gus Van Sant flop, Sea of Trees. Briefly putting aside questions of tastefulness, Aokigahara’s macabre history has ample horror movie potential. The disturbing setting paired with Natalie Dormer, fresh from her roles as rebel filmmaker Cressida (The Hunger Games), and ambitious queen Margaery Tyrell (Game of Thrones), could have made for a halfway decent film. Unfortunately, The Forest instead trips and lands, Natalie-Dormer-in-the-woods style, into the usual xenophobia and nonsense writing characteristic of most of these “East meets West” horror films (The Grudge, Shutter).

Right out of the gates, The Forest is in a hurry to explain itself. A brief conversation Stateside between Sara (Dormer) and husband Robert (Eoin Macken) reveals the premise of the film within the first five minutes: Sara’s twin, Jess, has disappeared from her teaching job in Japan and, via some poorly explained “twin thing,” Sara senses that she needs to fly out there immediately to rescue her. Upon arriving in Japan, Sara heads immediately to the school where her sister teaches to frighten a room full of uniformly superstitious Japanese school kids who have apparently never seen identifical twins before and discovers that Jess was last seen entering Aokigahara. This tidbit of information is revealed in an odd scene with the bilingual headmistress translating totally unhelpful and tactless folklore about senicide and vengeful ghosts from one of Jess’s randomly selected and particularly wound up students for some reason. And so begins The Forest’s shocking, recurring motif of Japanese people behaving not at all like actual people.

Things don’t improve much. En route to her to hotel, Sara makes a brief preliminary pit stop at Aokigahara with a suitcase (again, for some reason), where she identifies a badly decomposed suicide victim as being someone other than Jess. She makes a plan to enter the forest to conduct her own search but not before taking some time to wander around and scowl at all things Japanese including food, cosplayers, other women, a man on a train, a baby, someone’s prosthetic-laden grandmother, and her spacious hotel room. Heeding the repetitive and offensively cryptic warnings of basically every Japanese person Sara encounters to “stay on the path,” she also decides she needs a guide. Conveniently, one falls into her lap in the most reputable of places a bar in the form of handsome, English-speaking travel journalist Aiden (Taylor Kinney). Aiden listens to her readily presented sob story, introduces her to his bilingual forest guide friend, Michi (Yukiyoshi Ozawa) who regularly does pro bono body searches in Aokigahara, and the three new best friends head off into the woods. What could possibly go wrong?

Yukiyoshi Ozawa, Taylor Kinney and Natalie Dormer in The Forest.

In the forest, the movie evolves from empty jump scares and dream sequences into being a horror movie proper, but by this point it’s too little too late. While the film was mercifully not filmed in real-life Aokigahara, the environment Zada and his team create is decently spooky, dressed up with fog, ropes, and eerie coloured tape used as trail markers. With Michi’s help, Sara and Aiden stumble upon some evidence that suggests Jess is nearby and, at this point, the story veers off into a muddled, confusing mess including a reductionist take on mental illness. Somehow, The Forest manages to be both incomprehensible and yet totally predictable, ticking off the stereotypical horror movie plot points like a connect-the-dots without filling in the gaps between. The only respite is that, deep in the forest, there’s substantially less for the film to be racist about.

In addition to the plot making basically just enough sense to be greenlit for production, The Forest has some serious flaws in terms of both performance and character writing. Almost every performance in this film is terrible. Casting Dormer as both twins was an especially huge mistake. There’s not enough editing or hair dye in the world to sell me on Sara and Jess being different people and Dormer plays both as if she knows this and is only slogging along because she’s contractually obligated. It’s like the entire cast has unanimously agreed to give up in the face of bad writing. While I absolutely sympathize with them (the writing is pretty terrible, as illustrated by the particularly inventive good blonde twin/bad brunette twin dichotomy writers Sarah Cornwell, Nick Antosca, and Ben Ketai employ), but there’s something to be said for being a good sport.

To his credit, only Yukiyoshi Ozawa seems to be making a genuine effort to infuse some humanity into the role he’s been given. In all fairness, however, Michi is the only character modelled after anything resembling an actual human being, which probably gives him a little bit of an advantage over his peers. Remember that VICE documentary I mentioned earlier? Michi is a carbon copy of the documentary’s narrator and real life corpse-retrieving hero, Azusa Hayano. In fact, the expository dialogue Ozawa delivers upon entering the forest with Aiden and Sara in tow is ripped practically word for word from the documentary. In conclusion, what I’m essentially getting at is that if Aokigahara and its sad, sordid relationship with Japan’s increasing suicide epidemic interests you, skip The Forest’s humdrum ghosts and offensive Japanese caricatures and go right to the documentary that so obviously inspired it. With a score that’s eerily reminiscent of Werner Herzog’s unsettling and funereal Into the Abyss, the VICE doc is accurate, (mostly) tasteful, and far more respectful than whatever it is Jason Zada dreamed up here.

– Danny McMurray has a B.A. in English Language and Literature with a minor in Anthropology from the University of Western Ontario. She is particularly enthusiastic about science fiction, horror movies, feminism, video games, books, opera, and good espresso – all of which she can find in spades in her home base of Toronto, Ontario.

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