The Forest of Love (2019) – movie review

Forest of Love. Japanese poster - Courtesy of Asian Movie Pulse

With at least one film per year – and, sometimes, 6 movies in one year, like it happened in 2015 – for fans of Sion Sono there’s plenty of chances to get their mind fucked and their senses destroyed.

The latest movie from the Japanese master filmmaker is The Forest of Love, which dropped on Netflix on October 11th without any warning or anticipation. This film is labelled as a crime/drama/horror picture and it’s said to be based on a true story: but being a big admirer of Sion Sono and knowing most of his movies fairly well, I knew The Forest of Love was going to be a wild ride, a genre-bending movie that goes beyond any classification. And this is exactly what it is.

In fact, for a movie called The Forest of Love, our characters experience very little love and quite a lot of violence, torture and abuse: the movie starts off as an anime-inspired drama about three young adults who want to make an indie film. Soon, they meet an old girlfriend of them who, in consequence, introduces them to another girl, a virgin named Mitsuko: she’s a damaged girl and she’s dating Mr Joe Murata, a charismatic but psychotic older man who the three boys suspect to be the serial killers the news has been reporting on. As Shin and his two friends (the aspiring filmmakers) try to solve the mystery and shoot their film, they also get involved in Murata’s life, which is characterised by constant violence and abuse towards women (mostly).

Continue reading and check my final grade below… 

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Those of you who are familiar with the cinema of Sion Sono won’t be surprised by this statement, but The Forest of Love is probably the most unflinching and disturbing film I’ve seen in 2019. Unlike Suicide Club (2001) and The Whispering Star (2015), which are depressing as hell, The Forest of Love manages to be very entertaining and exhilarating as well: although the implications of this film are very dour and hopeless, the way the story unfolds leaves quite a lot of space for uncomfortable comedy, dark jokes, cute and tender moments, playful and enjoyable violence.

During the first hour of this 151-minute-long movie, it’s really hard to understand what tone The Forest of Love is going for, since it feels like a romantic comedy for a bit, and then it turns into a heavy drama – the horror and thriller elements are introduced only halfway through the film, alongside the first really gory and disturbing sequence. At the same time, many different characters are introduced during the first 60 minutes, with a non-linear storytelling making things even harder to understand. However, if you have enough patience, everything and everyone in this picture starts making sense after a while and, by the end of the film, you fully and easily understand all the plot bits as well as the overarching meaning of the story.

While the plodding and chaotic first half can push some viewers away, for those of you who enjoy filmmaking as an artform even this part would be a blast: as per usual with Sono, the score of The Forest of Love is both jaw-dropping and perfect for every scene. In fact, the soundtrack for this movie is by far my favourite of the year: the film knows when to rely on beautiful classical music that warms your heart and when to switch to an unbearably eerie and uncomfortable horror-esque score. Aside from Gaspar Noe’, no other director in the world can master music for film to such a degree of perfection, and The Forest of Love proves that.

The astounding soundtrack combined with the way the film is shot creates an atmosphere that is very surreal, almost dream-like. It’s funny how Sion Sono turned a supposedly-true story into one of his most abstract and absurd movies yet. That’s why he’s such a phenomenal filmmaker: he takes what you would expect from a certain genre and does something completely different with it; it defies your expectations constantly and very much on purpose.

Except that, more often than not, you can be pretty sure a film by Sion Sono is going to shock and disturb you. As I previously stated, The Forest of Love starts off quite light-heartedly, but once the violence appears on screen for the first time, the movie turns into a proper disturbing picture. In fact, The Forest of Love would fit my EXTREME HORROR series perfectly. Gore, sexual violence, abuse, torture and dismemberment: you name it, he’ll show it!

Even though some people might find the excessive violence to be gratuitous and done for shock value, The Forest of Love is a much deeper film than those viewers would give it credit for. In my opinion, this amazing film is an exploration into the way an adult society exploits and manipulates the youth; it delves into themes of family abuse and violence in media; it is, also, self-critical, since Sion Sono references – visually – his own movies to criticise some of the content in them.

This self-awareness has, however, a negative side in the film, because The Forest of Love reuses (or re-enacts) sequences from movies like Suicide Club, Cold Fish (2010) and Why Don’t You Play in Hell? (2013). For people who’ve seen Sion Sono movies before, this aspect might feel repetitive and bit manipulative. Aside from that, the other issues with the movie are quite minor: one of the main girls is established to have a broken leg, but she runs normally in a few scenes; a couple of moments in the beginning feel drawn-out; the title cards with dates on them are used a few too many times.

The Forest of Love is a truly great film, but it’s not a perfect one. In fact, it’s one of the least memorable movies in Sion Sono’s catalogue… which is saying something about the greatness of this Japanese artist.

The Forest of Love                                       8/10

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