The Forest of Love (Japan, 2019)

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.

The Forest 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.

One thing 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.