United States. Directed by Jason Zada, 2016. Starring Natalie Dormer, Taylor Kinney, Yukiyoshi Osawa, Eoin Macken. 93 minutes.
Let’s visit Wikipedia, the ultimate repository of all human knowledge, and see what it has to say about Aokigahara:
Aokigahara, also known as the Suicide Forest or Sea of Trees, is a 35-square-kilometre forest that lies at Mount Fuji’s northwest base in Japan…The forest has a historic association with demons in Japanese mythology, and it is a notoriously common suicide site (in which 54 took place in 2010)…
The forest is reportedly the most popular site for suicide in Japan and among the top three most popular sites for suicide in the world…In 2010, it was estimated that more than 200 people had attempted suicide in the forest, of whom 54 completed the act…[T]he place has long been associated with death: ubasute [an ancient Japanese custom of euthanasia] may have been practiced there into the nineteenth century, and the forest is reputedly haunted by the yūrei (angry spirits) of those left to die.
Sounds like the perfect place to set a horror story…such as Jason Zada’s feature début, The Forest. Natalie Dormer (Queen Margaery on Game of Thrones) plays Sara Price, a young American woman who gets a call from police in Japan. Her twin sister Jess (also played by Dormer), an ESL teacher, has gone missing and is presumed dead–as she was last seen walking into Aokigahara forest. Sara, convinced her sister is still alive, hops the first flight to Japan and heads to Aokigahara forest. There, with the help of American expat Aiden (Taylor Kinney, Chicago Fire) and park guide Michi (Yukiyoshi Ozawa), she sets out to discovered what happened to her twin.
The film conceives of Aokigahara as being a sort of bad place that–much like Shirley Jackson’s Hill House and Stephen King’s Overlook Hotel–preys on the neuroses and dark secrets of its victims, and the Price twins have those in spades. Unfortunately, Zada handles the backstory with a clumsy lack of subtlety, resulting in scenes where you can’t tell whether a particular inconsistency comes as the result of an unrealizable narrator or is simply a plot hole. Zada and the screenwriting team (which includes Hannibal staff writer Nick Antosca and Beneath director Ben Ketai) try too hard to get their points across to the audience, when what they need to do is–to misquote Han Solo–“scare casual.”
Poor characterization also detracts from any effect the film might have. Despite her proactivity in her search for her sister, Sara proves frustrating in her willingness to believe in whatever sensory input presents itself to her, even when she’s been warned to be on her guard, and when it simply doesn’t make any sense. You can sense the filmmakers straining to present her as a “strong female protagonist,” but it simply doesn’t take. Aiden makes for a decent enough supporting character, if a bit under developed, and despite his character arc being obvious from the minute he offers to accompany Sara on her search.
A stronger cast might have helped alleviate these issues, but neither Dormer nor Kinney make up for the deficiency in characterization with their performances. Nor do they have much in the way of chemistry, even if we’re supposed to believe there’s a bit of a spark of attraction between Sara and Aiden. Kinney also doesn’t show the range necessary to convince us of some of the things the plot requires Sara to believe of him.
And it’s a shame, because Zada’s imagery, if not spectacular, is a cut above horror-movie standard, and the film’s setup has potential. There’s probably a good horror story to be told about Aokigahara. Sadly, The Forest ain’t the one.