“The Forest of Love,” directed by Sion Sono (“Why Don’t You Play in Hell?”), follows the hazy adventures of a group of young filmmakers, a slick con man and two girls with dark high school memories. The film is highly experimental without a close reference in genre or style, but the closest that comes to mind is “Mulholland Drive.” The two movies share a similarly fragmented narrative structure and gauzy harshness to their aesthetic, but differ vastly in their atmospheres.
A major strength of “Forest” is its characters. Each of them bursts with life, from Shin (Shinnosuke Mitsushima, “Kingdom”), a loner who finds his passion in Tokyo when approached by a pair of aspiring filmmakers, to Mitsuko (newcomer Eri Kamataki), a mysterious recluse struggling to overcome the ghosts of her past. As zany as the movie eventually becomes, the audience’s connection to these characters is ultimately what keeps “Forest” afloat.
The film’s first 90 minutes are especially compelling, powerfully juxtaposing the themes of buried sexual anxiety and zealous adolescent spontaneity. The screenplay is easy to follow but never predictable, riding the line between the genres of comedy, horror, romance and thriller without cost to its vibrant characters. “Forest” makes an interesting point about the fantastical gravity of filmmaking, comparing it to a kind of superpower through which to see the world. The lens of a camera can be an enlightening way to capture the entire world and to garner praise (for Shin and his friends, this means winning at a local film festival). Of course, that superpower has its consequences too; when placed in the hands of the lonely, sexually depraved schoolboys, it becomes a tool of exploitation rather than exploration. The divide between those two outcomes of filmmaking is characteristic not only of the movie that Shin creates, but of “Forest” itself.
Where the movie loses the cogency of its ideas is in its absurd, macabre final hour. Though he hangs over the story in vignettes and flashbacks, the permanent entrance of conman Joe Murata (Kippei Shina, “Hand of God”) irreversibly transforms “Forest” into psychological horror. He clutches onto the film’s intimate revelations, its haloed innocence and burns them to the ground with a nihilism that is more than shocking — it’s assaulting. The contrast is stark and uncomfortable, exchanging the film’s slow treatment of a few ideas to the intense, unforgiving focus of just a few.
While this violent, stomach-churning segment of the “Forest” is sure to turn off some viewers, I found it a remarkable example of how far a director can both sharpen and discard the rules of a story, so unbound to logic or his viewers that each new turn the film takes is as affecting as the last. In other words, the filmmakers begin to fall into the lunacy of their characters, an idea that ultimately consumes “Forest” behind and in front of the camera. To experience that downward hedonic spiral of isn’t necessarily enjoyable or entertaining, but it shook me to my core in a way that few films ever have. In sacrificing the wit and tangible message of the ideas it initially presented, “Forest” forces viewers into the tattered psyche of its own director.
To say I’ve never seen anything like “Forest” is not completely accurate. I’ve never seen anything that even approximates the clawing, bruising torment of this film. That realization was both exciting as it was frightening during the movie, but I finished it feeling more enlightened than anything else. For those looking to expand the limits of their movie watching, “Forest” is the perfect pick, especially for October.