Sunday, 28 February 2016


Aokigahara forest, also known as the Sea of Trees, is one of the most notorious locations in all of Japan. At the base of Mount Fuji, this dense woodland has gained infamy for a chilling reason which has given it an altogether less pleasant nickname — the Suicide Forest.
For some reason, it has long been a place which has attracted those planning to take their lives — in 2010 there were 54 suicides, an average of more than one each week. Due to the nature of Japanese mythology's Yūrei (vengeful spirits doomed to roam the earth after dying in the depths of despair or anger), it seems only natural that they should come to be associated with such a place. 
Considering the fact that Yūrei have come to take on such a huge role in modern horror (J-horror icons Sadako from Ring and Kayako from The Grudge franchise are notable examples, as are the American knockoff ghostly girls in white dresses with long, unkempt black hair), it was just a matter of time before the real life horrors of Aokigahara became a basis for a movie.
With a publicity campaign that seems pretty much omnipresent throughout London's tube, this film is one that is clearly expected to do well at the box office.
So would The Forest be worth going out on a limb over?
Or would it be one I'd want to leave behind?
Read on...


Dir: Jason Zada
Starring: Natalie Dormer, Eoin Macken, Stephanie Vogt, Taylor Kinney, Yukiyoshi Ozawa

SPEEDY SYNOPSIS: I'll try not to spoil too much here but continue at your own risk.

Woken in the night by a disturbing nightmare, Sara (Dormer) is gripped by an unshakeable feeling that something terrible has befallen her twin Jess (Dormer again).
Much to her fiancé Rob's (Macken) chagrin, she promptly boards a flight to Japan to attend to her sister. It seems this is something of a pattern, ever since a tragic incident when they were young girls, Jess has blindly blundered into trouble and Sara has regularly bailed her out.
However, upon arriving at the school in Tokyo where Jess works as an English teacher, it soon becomes clear that this time is different, worse. Jess was last seen entering the infamous Aokigahara, the Suicide Forest. 
A fish out of water, Sara realises that she will need help if she hopes to find Jess, and fortune seems to smile on her when she meets friendly journalist Aiden (Kinney) in a bar. In exchange for her story, he offers to introduce Sara to forest ranger Michi (Ozawa) and accompany her on her search for her missing twin.
The next day the three head into the ominous woodland together... but straight into a nightmare...

THE BEST BITS (mild spoiler warning): Despite the somewhat OTT posters, The Forest is actually a far more psychological horror movie than an out-and-out spook fest.
It's a surprisingly small and intimate film, the story could have become pretty massive when taking into account the scores of people who take their own lives in Aokigahara, but instead the focus remains very much on a handful of characters and their own plight.
It helps that the cast are so strong, they get the viewer onside and their performances really capture the attention.
The star of the piece is undoubtedly Dormer, who is great in both of her roles. It's a testament to her ability that there's a lot more than a packet of hair dye that distinguishes between Sara and Jess. She gives the latter character an edgier quality, yet also an additional fragility. Simple things such as an unblinking, wide-eyed stare and subtle shifts in posture make Jess an entirely different individual to Sara. However, it is her role as Sara that gets the most screentime and it is an equally complex part.
The sweeter of the two sisters, Sara is also the strongest, her sister's guardian, and she walks between the roles of concerned sibling and protective surrogate parent ably and convincingly. Later in the film when the paranoia-inducing mind games of the Suicide Forest start to take their toll, Dormer adds an extra element to her performance, using skittish body-language and narrow-eyed glances to effectively reflect an unraveling psyche.
The target for much of her mistrust is the impressive Kinney's Aiden. While he plays the one character, his is also effectively a dual role, the friendly, charming individual that Sara meets outside of Aokigahara and the shady, suspicious and even potentially dangerous character he becomes within the confines of the forest.
He does a good job of keeping us guessing until late on in the plot, which is exactly what is required of him.
Elsewhere Ozawa lends capable support in a role that could have done with a little expansion.
However, it is not Ozawa or even the equally underused Macken who deserves third billing, but the hugely atmospheric forest setting. Brought to menacing and oppressive life by cinematographer Mattias Troelstrup, the forest is shot in such a way that it becomes a character in its own right. The shadows are deep, the lush greens of the forest leached, robbing what should be a vibrant location of all life, much the way that the titular sucks away the soul of those venture into it.
Both wildly beautiful and darkly foreboding, the location (actually shot in Serbia in the forest surrounding Tara Mountain as it is illegal to film in Aokigahara) really heightens the creepy atmosphere, setting the stage for the scares. And these scares come in many forms — yes there are some obligatory, admittedly well-worked jumps (a late night encounter in a tent and a key scene with a child's view-master toy are among the standouts), but there are also some decidedly more sophisticated frights. As creepy as the restless souls of the forest's suicides are, there is a theme throughout that the worst ghosts are the ones we carry from our own past. Guilt, self-delusion, grief — the story, penned by Nick Antosca, Sarah Cornwell and Ben Ketai, touches on all of these and there are strong hints that it could be these, rather than any supernatural entities, that are wreaking havoc with our leads.
Yes, the hooded figures in the woods are haunting, but it is the horror of Sara and Jess's past that is most disturbing.

THE WORST BITS (mild spoiler warning): Let's start with a question of taste — is it really appropriate to use the real life horrors of Aokigahara, a place that has seen the end of scores of human lives, for entertainment purposes?
Those troubled individuals who chose to take their lives there left behind brothers, sisters, children, parents and friends. There is a very real chance that The Forest could cause them significant distress.
Even the poster depicting half of Dormer's face could be judged to be in poor taste, evoking a famous image of the corpse of a man who hanged himself in Aokigahara, then decayed so badly over time that his lower jaw actually dropped off.
Yes, this is a real world story with plenty of scope to chill the viewer — but that doesn't mean that it is ok to tell.
As for the film itself, one of the biggest problems is probably the fact that it feels like plenty of other (superior) films have been thrown in a blender. With elements of The Blair Witch Project, The Grudge and The Grudge 2 and even Don't Look Now, it all feels rather familiar without ever breaking new ground.
Familiarity needn't be a weakness if a film is clever with the material that it borrows, sadly The Forest is pretty predictable and a lot more simple than it first appears. It plays out like it wants to be a cross between a freaky psychological mindfuck of a story combined with a chilling, dread-filled ghost story. Unfortunately, in reaching for both of these targets it never quite hits the mark for either.
Finally, this feels very much like a deeply shallow and unfamiliar take on Japanese culture. From a senseless and frankly offensive scene that seems to exist purely to point out the 'grossness' of Japanese cuisine to the stereotypical submissive, honour-bound school girls, it is alarmingly broad. I get that certain character-archetypes, locations and customs can be used to enrich a story and its themes — but I'm afraid that simply isn't the case here.

THE VERDICT: I've seen a few advanced reviews of The Forest that call it a bad film. I don't actually think that this is the case — instead I'd say it was merely 'okay'. It has some decent frights and a fantastic central performance, but sadly it comes across as a sort of 'greatest hits' of horror, without ever really making much of an impact on its own terms. 
It's an entertaining enough way to while away a couple of hours, but in six months time it will be long forgotten.

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Until next time, I hope you enjoyed your stay.

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