Posted by Holly
Directed by: Jason Zada
The Aokigahara forest in Japan is quite infamous, and has long been surrounded by an air of mystery. The name itself means “sea of trees”, but it is colloquially known as the “Suicide Forest”. Upon entering, the density of the forest cuts off almost all outside sound, creating a sense of isolation. There are signs strategically placed at the entrance, urging visitors to seek help rather than take their own lives. It is estimated that an average of 30 successful suicides take place there annually, and more attempted. It is a place of deep sadness and cultural significance to many.
Of course, Hollywood had to try and find a way to make it about white Americans.
There is a natural fascination with foreign locations and curiosities, and Aokigahara certainly does have a unique history. It’s understandable that there’s a draw to this location, and a desire to tell stories about it. But using this location as an “exotic” backdrop for a rather mundane story does not do it justice. This is a location that could be deeply frightening and unsettling given the respect and attention it deserves in a horror film, but this film ultimately did not come close.
The Forest begins with Sara, a woman who is constantly bailing out her perpetually troubled twin sister, Jess, getting a sense that something is amiss with said sister. When she discovers that Jess is missing and was last seen going into Aokigahara, Sara immediately flies to Japan on a mission to save her sister’s life. However, once she arrives and begins her search, it becomes apparent that it may not just be Jess’s life that is in danger.
The first thing that should be addressed it the obvious elephant in the room: this movie is about exclusively white characters. The forest is a real place in Japan, and it will probably come as a surprise to no one to learn that most of the people who have died there were Japanese. To make the story about Americans reeks of exoticism, but at least setting the story in Japan gave the filmmakers a chance to include Japanese characters, right? Wrong. Shortly after arriving in Japan, Sara meets Aiden, an American travel writer who conveniently speaks fluent Japanese and has significant knowledge of the forest, as well as connections with some locals. And with that, the writers eliminated any need to include a Japanese character altogether. The few Japanese characters who are included in passing are generally relegated to reinforcing the idea of Japan being a scary, foreign place full of superstitious weirdos. It’s lazy writing by people who believe that the only way for a character to be relateable is for them to be a white American.
The laziness in the writing of this film becomes almost even more apparent with the introduction of Sara and Jess. Done well, a story about twins can be fascinating. Most of the time it’s used as shorthand to let an audience know that two people are very close, to explain their ability to understand and feel each other’s emotions without having to put in the effort of establishing that relationship on screen. The latter is precisely what The Forest does, bypassing any chance to create a relationship between Jess and Sara by showing them together, and instead opting to have Sara explain situations where she just “felt” something was wrong. There is only one scene in the entire movie of adult Sara and Jess speaking to each other, and it’s a rather short and pointless scene.
Considering the subject matter, one would think that this would be a story about depression, and the struggle between a woman and her inner demons. That would be giving the story too much credit. The attempt to portray Sara as inherently sad, and thus vulnerable to the forest’s manipulations, is so sloppy that it is nearly incomprehensible. Aokigahara is used as a vehicle for “spooky” jump scares with ghosts (Japanese school girls, no less), and some delusional paranoia thrown in for good measure. The idea that the forest plays with your perception is an interesting one, and perhaps something that even could have been successful in better hands – depression and suicidal ideation often twist a person’s perception, so the blending of the paranormal and the mundane could make for a frightening existential tale. Restless and sad spirits using manipulation as a way of convincing someone to stay and die in the forest is an unsettling thought.
Beyond that, the story doesn’t respect its subject matter enough to tackle it head-on. When Sara ultimately takes her own life, it is because she believes she is being attacked and slashes at her arm in self-defense. Sara is tricked by the forest, and doesn’t even realize she has harmed herself until it’s too late. This misconstrues the most horrifying thing about suicide: the element of choice. Suicide is terrifying – not because people die – but because they reach a point where death seems like the most appealing option. The subject forces people to examine themselves, and if there is a point when giving up on life is acceptable. People die in Aokigahara because they choose to do so, and by taking that choice away from Sara, the forest becomes a malicious entity that murders her, and The Forest becomes a generic movie about evil ghosts that side steps talking about suicide.
Reverence is not necessarily required to discuss suicide. Suicide Club is a fantastic film that features grotesque and casual depiction of the act – because the film as a whole uses it to underline a greater point it’s trying to make, it is able to justify its over the top tone. It is a warning tale about conformity and people’s tendency to be lured into self destruction when not confident in their own identity. Kairo is another beautiful film that takes on the subject, with a much darker and existential tone. It too features spirits that spread hopelessness and misery, much like this film attempts. But Kairo emphasizes that the horror isn’t in the presence of the spirits, but rather that in the face of overwhelming despair, very few people choose life. The Forest has no underlying point, it has nothing to say, and that emptiness is painfully obvious.
Even if you are not offended by the choice to populate this movie with white characters, or the disregarding attitude it takes towards suicide, it’s simply not a very good movie. And that’s the biggest failing of this film; it is impossible to enjoy on any level. The plot line, as stated previously, is sloppy and confusing. The characters are weak, and relationships are barely established, making it difficult to actually care about what happens to anyone. The rest of it is a terrible series of jump scares, including a particularly jarring one at the very end of the movie, cutting off what would have otherwise been a melancholic note for the film’s end.
That’s The Forest in a nutshell: a misunderstanding of what makes a film scary so fundamental that it fails to do anything other than grasp at jump scares for its agonizing ninety-minute run time. There’s little to like in this film, and virtually reason to watch it other than for explicit hate-watching. And if that’s your plan, have at it – there’s more than enough material for you to enjoy.
Rating: 1.5 out of 5. Skip it, unless you’re a huge Natalie Dormer fan.
Scariness level: Low. Unless you find cheap jumps and Japanese school girls terrifying, in which case, there are far better movies to watch.
Violence level: Medium-ish. There’s a lot of death depicted, including visible depictions of suicide, and the aftermath of a murder-suicide, but very little is shown explicitly.
Bechdel test: Passes, with literally the only scene where Jess and Sara interact. Though I’m tempted to create a version of this where two named, non-white characters talk about something that isn’t a white person. This would fail that test.
Mako Mori test: The story is about Sara looking for her sister, so it does pass.