The Forest of Love (2019) ☆☆(2/4): A monotonously self-indulgent work by Sion Sono

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The works of Japanese filmmaker Sion Sono are definitely not something you can casually watch on Sunday afternoon. I still remember well how much I was chilled and disturbed by “Cold Fish” (2010), a remorselessly cold-blooded thriller about an ordinary man who is gradually and irrevocably influenced by an evil person he happens to be associated with. I still cringe and chuckle as recollecting those hilariously gory and bloody moments in “Why Don’t You Play in Hell” (2013), a wild black comedy film about a bunch of nutty characters who go all the way for their deranged filmmaking process. And I still roll my eyes as reflecting on those loony colorful moments in “Antiporno” (2016), a trashy and stylish flick revolving around the unreliable state of a supposedly artistic mind.

In case of Sono’s latest film “The Forest of Love”, which was released on Netflix this Friday, is no exception as wildly throwing numerous crazy moments at us during its 151-minute running time, but, alas, many of them do not work well together while often confusing and baffling us from the beginning to the end. Although it is surely as bold and heedless as we can expect from Sono, the movie unfortunately fails to provide anything we can hold onto as wildly going up and down along its overlong and convoluted narrative, and the overall result is monotonously self-indulgent to say the least.

At the beginning, we are introduced to a trio of young men who want to make an independent film to be submitted to some big movie festival. When it turns out that one of them never had sex with girl, they decide to go to some funky girl in their neighborhood, and that girl, named Taeko (Kyoko Hinami), suggests that they should go to Mitsuko (Eri Kamataki) a reclusive girl who was one of Taeko’s close school friends and is also incidentally a virgin.

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Taeko and the boys later visit Mitsuko’s house, but Mitsuko is understandably not so willing to give what the boys want, and the following flashback part reveals to us that she has been obsessed with a certain school friend of hers for several years. When that girl in question died due to an unfortunate accident, Mitsuko became quite devastated, and she subsequently attempted suicide along with several other schoolmates including Taeko, but she hesitated at the last minute just because she saw the ghost of that dead girl, who has often appeared to her since that unlikely moment.

Anyway, the boys decide to make a film based on Mitsuko’s life, so they start to shoot her from the distance without her agreement, and then something dramatic happens in her life. A man named Murata (Kippei Shîna) calls her on one day, and, though she does not know anything about this man who claims that they met before, Mitsuko finds herself attracted to him after they meet each other at a nearby park.

Of course, Murata turns out to be quite different from what he seems to be on the surface. When the boys show Taeko the video clip of Mitsuko and Murata meeting at the park, she instantly recognizes him because he once approached to her sister and her family with a hidden purpose some time ago, and the boys become more excited as discerning how their project becomes a lot more interesting thanks to Murata.

And then the story takes an unexpected plot turn. While continuing to work on Mitsuko and her family, Murata also gets involved again with Taeko, and that subsequently leads to a deal between him and the boys. Promising to them that he will provide financial support, he comes to participate in the making of their movie, and, not so surprisingly, he soon becomes the de facto director of their movie as keeping demanding more and more from the boys and several other characters including Mitsuko and Taeko.

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As Murata gradually gets his targets under his insidious control and influence in a way not so far from Kiyoshi Kurosawa’s “Creepy” (2016), the mood of the movie becomes darker and loonier than before, and Sono serves us a series of deliberately unpleasant moments to shock and repulse us. There are several unnerving scenes which will strike you hard with cruel and sadistic acts of violence, and there are also a couple of grisly scenes which will definitely make you wince for gory details.

However, these and other nasty moments in the film are not held together well due to incoherent narrative and thin characterization. Even compared to those broad caricature characters in “Why Don’t You Play in Hell?”, the main characters of “The Forest of Love” feel flat and mediocre without much life and personality to hold our attention, and we only come to observe these one-note characters from the distance without much care. In addition, Sono’s screenplay frequently loses its narrative pacing and momentum while merely throwing away logic and plausibility for more excess and craziness, and I was really surprised by how much I felt bored despite all those wild and deranged moments hurled onto the screen.

In conclusion, “The Forest of Love” is a disappointing misfire in many aspects, so I cannot recommend it, but, at least, it is still a distinctive work from one of the most prominent filmmkers working in Japan. To be frank with you, I am sort of glad to see his latest work being introduced to more audiences via Netflix, and I sincerely hope that will lead to more attention on the better works of his idiosyncratic filmmaking career.

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