Japanese auteur Sion Sono had his first taste of the streaming market in 2017 when his 8-episode miniseries, Tokyo Vampire Hotel, saw a worldwide premiere on Amazon Video – a fact that Amazon seemed to immediately forget given how little advertising they gave the project. Now, a couple of years and films later, Sono has decided to give it another go, this time with Netflix. His latest feature, The Forest of Love, now available on the streaming giant, is entertaining, even impressive at times, but ultimately unlikely to stand out amidst the director’s prolific output.
Clocking in at
150 minutes, the plot of The Forest of Love is far too long and
convoluted to allow for a concise summary, so I won’t bother. Suffice it to
say, it involves strangely charismatic conman Joe Murata (Kippei Shina), a
reclusive girl with a traumatic past, Mitsuko (Eri Kamataki), and a bunch of
boys trying to shoot an indie film that inevitably spirals out of control.
Squeezed in there somewhere is also a serial murder subplot that may or may not
be relevant to the rest of the story. That plus lots of sex, nudity, gore,
violence, and the deliciously macabre sense of humor that one expects from a
Sion Sono film. All in all, Sono fans will recognize the familiar staples of
his previous films, most of which are abundantly present in The Forest of
Love, almost to the point of exhaustion.
Sono made a
name for himself in the first decade of the 21st century with provocative films
such as Suicide Club
(2001), Noriko’s Dinner Table (2005), Strange Circus (2005), Love
Exposure (2008), Cold Fish (2010), Guilty of Romance (2011),
and my personal favorite, Himizu (2011). His films possessed the unique
ability to cut through the pangs of social hypocrisy with unapologetic vigor,
introducing a new kind of satire in Japanese cinema, one that was both stinging
and subtle at the same time.
Since then, however, Sono seems to have fallen victim of a self-imposed
malaise, becoming a caricature of his earlier self by largely trading quality
for quantity. His style has been distilled down to a few recognizable tropes
which are amped to the max for the sake of shock value, lacking the poignancy
of the earlier works. His latest film, The Forest of Love, continues
more or less in the same tradition, delivering shock for shock’s sake.
of Love begins with a title card declaring it is
“based on true events,” a mark present in a few other Sono films,
most notably Love Exposure. Nevertheless, Sono doesn’t let the truth get
in the way of his artistic vision, and so, just like in Love Exposure,
whatever truth lies behind The Forest of Love has been likely mutated to
something entirely unrecognizable. The change is possibly for the best, but it
nevertheless begs the question: why bother to tell us in the first place? By
the end, the plot has gone so far off the realm of possibility that any
potential basis in truth hardly seems to matter.
that remains consistently impressive throughout Sono’s exhaustive narrative is
his creative use of color in the film’s cinematography and artistic design. The
plot’s unabashed lack of subtlety carries over to the film’s look, with strong
blues and reds alternating in quick succession, creating a highly stylized
picture. The macabre is beautiful when it needs to be, and disturbing when it
has to be.
It’s hard to
give a film like The Forest of Love a definite thumbs up or thumbs down.
It does precisely what the director intended, and manages to be quite
entertaining in the process, provided you can make it through all the zealous excessss.
If you’re a Sono fan and want more of the same, this is the perfect film for
you. If not, then it is perhaps best to move along.