Ai-naki Mori de Sakebe
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FEATURING: Kippei Shîna, Eri Kamataki,
PLOT: A group of young filmmakers make a movie about a con-man they suspect of being a serial killer, but he turns the tables on them when he offers to produce the film, then turns the crew into a sadomasochistic cult of killers.
WHY IT MIGHT MAKE THE LIST: Sion Sono doesn’t do “normal”; he goes for broke on every project. Forest of Love is overlong, ugly, perverse, masturbatory, and fascinating.
COMMENTS: The intricate plot of Forest of Love includes, among other things, a “Romeo and Juliet” centered lesbian love triangle, a schoolgirl suicide pact, a Svengali-like conman who seduces younger women into sadomasochistic relationships, an outlaw film crew who act like the Manson cult and run around Japan committing murders, bourgeois parents given a punk makeover, days of wine and electrocution, ghosts, and possible identity switches at the end. Sono purportedly based the screenplay on a real-life killer, but I’m thinking that he might have changed a few of the details.
The Forest of Love is a bruising movie. Its two-and-a-half hour length would normally only pose a minor challenge to the viewer, but the extreme level of emotional cruelty Sono wallows in makes it into more of an endurance test. The suicide attempts are particularly brutal, not only because of the squirmy gore, but also due to the callous reactions (the family here finds suicide shameful, and are more concerned with covering up the disgrace than empathizing with their suffering child). But although many stretches of the film are nightmarish episodes of physical and psychological torture that feel like they’re never going to end, there are also moments of incredible beauty (slo-mo schoolgirls in their underwear singing and dancing to Pachelbel’s “Canon”) and black comedy (Murata, taking on the persona of a rock star, hosts a concert with an audience stocked with his previous marks).
Sono mixes elements that are purely exploitative (and often frankly sick) with gorgeous mise en scene, expert style, and just enough intellectualism and self-reflection to overcome charges of pandering. In true Surrealist fashion, he attacks the basic institutions of society, showing Murata molding those in his orbit into an obscene mockery of a nuclear family. But he contrasts this caricature with a portrait of a real dysfunctional Japanese family that is even worse, because it is so real. There’s a lot of subtle mirroring in the plot; the teasing play between the lesbian trio in flashbacks reflect the sadomasochistic dynamics we see between Murata and the two girls, and between Murata and the two young male filmmakers. One figure is always playing off two against each other.
Sono also treads a fine line between realism and absurdity. Murata manipulates his marks subtly, so that when they go along with his requests it seems almost reasonable at first; he then pushes them further and further until murder seems not only natural, but inevitable. Murata isn’t physically imposing and is greatly outnumbered, so all it would take to frustrate his plans is for any individual to stand up to him at any point. But cowering before his bullying seems reasonable; you see how they fear him, and feel their fear. No one wants to be the first to call him out, because he seldom dishes out punishment himself, instead commanding another to do the dirty work for him. As long as you are the one Murata asks to wield the electrical paddle against the disobedient, you won’t be on the receiving end. Of course, that respite only lasts until you displease the master; but you can see how easy it is for everyone to fall in line. By the time things get truly ridiculous, with the austere father sporting a mohawk and chugging a beer while assaulting his honored relatives, the audience has been brought along so slowly—like the proverbial frog boiled in a pot of gradually warming water—that it almost seems believable. (Of course, the finale will blow any claim to non-hallucinatory realities out of the water).
The fascist element of Murata’s charisma, coupled with the satire aimed at the Japanese family and society, suggests a political allegory. But I couldn’t help theorizing that Sono sees himself as something of a Murata… at least, recognizes that he has the potential within him to be a Murata. In the very first scene, in Murata tells a waiter he’s a screenwriter, and wonders out loud what it feels like to kill someone. The many generic references to other Sono movies and themes—the self-destruction pact like in Suicide Club, filmmakers documenting real crimes like in Why Don’t You Play in Hell?, the manipulative serial killer straight out of Cold Fish—only reinforce that sense of self-identification. “Crimes are fun in the movies and in real life,” muses one character. Does the impulse to film such dark fantasies say something about Sono? What does our desire to watch them say about us? Is Sono a con-man implicating us in his cinematic crimes? Sono fools around with those ideas, blurring the lines between representation and reality; he’s in a sadomasochistic relationship with his own demonic persona.
It’s a sign of Sono’s rising prestige that Netflix would sign him for an original exclusive production just like an Alfonso Cuarón or a , and give him carte blanche to make a movie so transgressive that people might think it really was made by a serial killer. It’s a sign of Sono’s continued outlaw status that Netflix would then hide the finished product away, not giving it a token theatrical release like Roma or The Irishman.
Forest of Love was Sono’s first film project after returning to work from a heart attack in February of this year. It was funded by, and screens exclusively on, Netflix (unfortunately, they did not give it even a token theatrical release). The dubbed version plays by default, so look around in your settings to switch it to the original Japanese with subtitles for a better experience.
WHAT THE CRITICS SAY:
“Sion Sono does not care that his movie is too long. He doesn’t care that it’s weird or gross or inconsistent or anything that a producer’s note might protest. We see so many movies every year that feel like the product of a focus group or marketing team. Not this one.”–Brian Tallerico, RogerEbert.com (contemporaneous)