By Matt Fleming. Cultural appropriation and Japanese horror have been cozy bedfellows for years, with films like Ringu and Ju On: The Grudge inspiring uninspired (or altogether lousy) American remakes. Though jump scares and creepy ghost-girls are firmly entrenched within contemporary American horror, The Forest is singular in its attempt to make a very real, very serious Japanese landmark into an actual cinematic villain. That in itself is problematic, to say the least, but it feels like a greater slight when the end result is this sloppy, confused, and boring.
Don’t get me wrong, Aokigahara is the stuff of nightmares. It’s a place where many troubled people have gone when their will to live is at its lowest. Thanks in part to a short Vice documentary and dozens of creepy internet lists, the Japanese “suicide forest” has received scads of fascination and pop culture buzz in the West, but any semblance of sympathy for the dead has been noticeably missing. In Japan, it has mythological roots as a dwelling for demons. To Americans it’s a scary forest where white people turn into ghosts.
Natalie Dormer is especially unenjoyable as twins Sara and Jess. The archetypes for these two are about as-on-the-nose as the emo-sister’s nasal piercing: Jess is the downtrodden and glum brunette who doesn’t fit in, and Sara is the blonde with a husband and a house. Natalie Dormer is not good at either of these roles.
As Sara, a protagonist searching a suicide forest for her missing sister, she spends most of the movie with a crooked, self-confident perma-grin. In her other, more limited role, she “has the dark hair” and talks to herself. (Margaery Tyrell this ain’t.) Her closest co-star, Taylor Kinney, is her charming American guide to the Japanese forest (who just happens to have a Japanese forest guide at beck and call). Named Aidan (because why not), Sara’s guide always seems just a nudge away from putting the moves on Sara, especially during a slumber party in the middle of a haunted forest. *sigh*
For a film shot in Japan, the Japanese people are merely background players for the most part, evoking an unfortunate feeling of “otherness” that people sometimes experience when they are wholly unfamiliar with a different culture. Natalie Dormer’s Sara visibly just can’t handle eating a crawfish that still wriggles atop her rice. The scariest image in the film’s first half is an old, blind Japanese woman who appears in a darkened hallway. The only major Japanese character ends the film looking like Peter Venkman did just second before he gets slimed. For crying out loud, they even managed to squeeze in a Japanese schoolgirl-ghost. The Forest is like a Zagat’s travel guide written by simpletons.
From Jason Zada, a director whose previous work includes a marketing campaign for Office Max and an interactive horror short about the dangers of Facebook, The Forest is made up of dozens of beautiful shots of Japanese nature juxtaposed with Americans fumbling with their iPhones. The film begins with “artful” narrative shifts that drop off into annoying flashbacks and dream sequences, all of which reek of Zada flirting with “a cinematic vision.” Unfortunately, his most memorable moments are the ones ripped off from Sam Raimi, and only because they made me laugh out loud.
The Forest tries to win over viewers with what it feels is clever deception, but it’s really nothing more than narrative tomfoolery. When it comes to horror, I think we should leave the Japanese to spin yarns about their native land and culture on their own. In a case such as this, the result is just a poor attempt to understand a different world. I’ll take Takashi Miike any day, while casual American filmgoers might be happier if they stuck to haunted dolls and sketchy found footage.
Directed by Jason Zada.
Produced by David S. Goyer, David Linde, and Tory Metzger.
Written by Nick Antosca, Sarah Cornwell, and Ben Ketai.
Starring Natalie Dormer and Taylor Kinney.
2 out of 10