The Forest for the trees: Dormer searches for a worthier script
Let me lead off with what The Forest, a Japan-set horror flick in theaters this weekend, gets right. It has a terrific concept-- launching off from the real-life Aokigahara, or “Sea of Trees,” forest at the base of Japan’s Mount Fuji, a place notorious for the number of suicides committed within its borders and an association with demons in local folklore. It has a compelling lead in Game of Thrones’ Natalie Dormer-- although I found her dual role as Sara and her missing identical twin, Jess, terribly distracting. It also has some surprising twists and turns in the storyline, and the location footage is truly breathtaking.. Director Jason Zada demonstrates flair for genuinely suspenseful filmmaking in some early sequences.
Alas, that promise doesn’t pay off in a movie that proves depressingly routine. The story follows Sara, whose troublemaking sibling Jess everyone else assumes has killed herself after she ventures into the Aokigahara and fails to return. Sara, of course, isn’t convinced, and enlists the aid of Taylor Kinney’s journalist Aiden-- essentially a gloss on Simon Baker’s charmer from The Devil Wears Prada-- and a local guide to search the restricted area of the forest to find Jess.
I was bothered by the overt exposition in the early scenes and the hamfisted attempts at character development that mostly ring hollow, although Dormer’s talent imbues the sisters and their relationship with an authenticity the script fails to provide. (Watching their flashback, I couldn’t help wishing the main character was the sassy, cynical Jess rather than the boringly straight-laced Sara.) Still, I was willing to withhold judgement if The Forest could really scare me. A sequence in which Jess is groped by something outside her tent at night is wonderfully unnerving, and seems to set the stage for a frightening odyssey.
Except that-- spoiler alert-- that moment turns out to be a dream sequence, thus joining the movie’s long list of “false scare” gags. The narrative fails to reveal a comprehensive backstory for the forest’s eerie power, perhaps because three different writers worked on this thing. Sara’s would-be Strong Female Character is maddeningly inconsistent: she turns the tables on an aggressor one moment, then begs them for help a couple scenes later. There’s also a troubling depiction of the Asian characters. Why do American movies about Japanese horrors always have white, only English-speaking characters? Why do all the schoolgirls look like Sailor Moon cosplayers? Do all of the fakeout moments with Sara getting scared by random Asian people mean to imply that Asians are inherently creepy? Ditto the scary/funny gag involving “weird” Japanese cuisine? The film’s sole Asian character with substantial screen time, Michi (Yukiyoshi Ozawa), exists exclusively to further the plot, with no apparent personality outside of concern and worry. To prove how secondary he is, the credits list him underneath all of the white leads and even “Homeless Man” and “Sushi Chef.”
The Forest is extremely disappointing not because it’s a bad film-- it’s an agreeable time waster, an okay way to pass a rainy afternoon on Netflix-- but because it could have been so much better. And a lot less racist, too.
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