The Netflix One: The Forest of Love (Sono, 2019)
As a huge fan of Japanese, European and surrealist-shock cinema, writer/director Sion Sono quickly became a favourite of mine after the worthwhile sprawling epic that was Love Exposure (2008). Sincere, satirical whilst sporting some base humour, it was a delight to watch. Sono could do no wrong. Following next in the marathon was his international breakout Suicide Club (2001), on my to-watch list for possibly eight years. I was relieved that I saw in context of its director and the world cinema from whence it came, struggling to follow the latter half of the story, feeling a little disappointed on first watch. Me eight years ago would have been unrefined. Now, it's on my re-watch's. Ordering his movies from all directions, I was evermore intrigued my this self-proclaimed anti-Japanese filmmaker. Which is why I embraced Netflix once again, begrudgingly, and endured The Forest of Love.
Granted, I have only seen the two and half hour feature of his latest work and not the seven hour series that has claimed to explain a lot more. But even so, something of the film misses a spark. Those striking visuals may compute as something distant from the generic cinematic venture but it becomes but only surface value. Based on Kitakyūshū Serial Murder Incident, the sprawling run time (undeserved this time around) attempts to explore and exaggerate that of its inspiration, if only mildly successful. There is no doubt the film brims with creativity, garishness and excess. Still, it feels unearned.
There's plenty in the plot. A man in a café, as he marks the faces of schoolgirls in a yearbook, asks his waiter if they know what it's like to kill someone. He claims to be a screenwriter. Young women are turning up dead in the forests. Then we follow a group of filmmakers. They discover one of their team is a virgin and take him to a woman they think will fix that problem. She denies him but takes them to the rich family home of an introverted young woman he seems to mourn and pine a long dead school friend. Eventually the virginity-losing is forgotten for flashback to the women's schooldays, a production of Romeo and Juliet with an all-female cast, unrequited love and a botched suicide pact. From here a con-man infiltrates, seducing all the women, emptying their bank accounts the families and eventually the film crew who have chosen his tale for their latest project. And that still isn't all of it. Abuse, torture, sex, debauchery, deception... the list goes on with the cast of characters involved growing ever longer.
Sono has been given the reigns in it's entirety in exchange for something else. The film has what I can now only describe as a sterile filter that accompanies every Netflix production. I would watch and first think of the company before claiming to know it was the work of Sono. This usurping of auteurship in theory should be making the film more accessible to the masses and so broadening the audience who have not yet had the pleasure of the directors work. But instead it seems it stagnate his voice.
In places it holds Sono's biting humour but much of it feels a rehash of previous work, with less edge and even less heart. Despite his descents into madness, excessive promiscuity, youthful rebellion, controversial feminism (or misogyny, of which I would argue), orgies of violence, aggressive sexuality, occasional theme of joint suicide leading to carnage, his films have maintained a quality of the humanitarian that makes Japanese cinema so engaging and moving. His exploration of moral ambiguity, his denunciation of organised religion, world order and sexual politics have elevated his works form great to epic. And yet this film lacks all this integrity. It lacks soul.
It is no secret that Netflix best quality is giving voices to productions that otherwise would have been lost in the bargain bin at Blockbusters or on obscure channels in the depths of the digital realm years prior. Where these Netflix originals become problematic is that we see productions that have no right to be as bloated as they are or as daring as they could be. In fact, I am yet to see a Netflix production that has blown me away. Prejudices aside, it has also become the platform for filmmakers to produce their passion projects. Alfonso Cuaron (Admittedly, the best film by the company, 2018's Roma), Bong Joon-Ho (Ojka, 2017), Spike Lee (This years disappointing Da 5 Bloods, which I have reviewed), Martin Scorsese (Last years far too long but enjoyable The Irishman - Al Pacino is on form) have all had recent 'hits' with Charlie Kaufman being the latest to join the big names with his adaptation of I'm Thinking of Ending Things which has premiered this month.
Still, to me, it's a sign of something troubling in the movie business that Netflix has become the viable option for storytellers. Or maybe it's that Netflix doesn't say no to them. With the obscurer side of the world rearing its head in the form of The Forest of Love, I believe it's further proof of a company that allows a lot. Sono is an unusual argument in this case. He is no stranger to egregious runtimes. The difference was, Love Exposure is engaging and powerful throughout the entirety of it's four hours. The Forest of Love lost me after an hour. And I stayed with it simply to avoid a half-watched film being forcibly thrust down my throat by the platform every day from then onwards. I didn't want the stop/start culture either. Many of those who watched The Irishman claimed to work through it over three days or so which removed the event element cinema is supposed to possess. But Sono's lack of conciseness here left me fidgety and distracted.
If I watched the seven hour version, I still feel I would gain little more information. I disliked many of the characters, with even the initially complex lothario con-man becoming tedious after a time. His peak moment, and one of the few scenes I remember vividly, was a stage concert he held in which in attendance was all his duped ex-lovers, both young and old, lusting after him in crowds as he performed what could only be described as dad music. It was strange and ridiculous, something rather Sono, especially in relation to his interest in the cult-like adoration of musical acts in his films. The con-man hardly gets you hot under the collar but he somehow has all the women wrapped around his little finger. What Sono is trying to say here, I am unsure. That women are fools when it comes to men and money? Or is it a further commentary on undying worship of these figures that will run us as a society into the ground, debase our better judgements and undo our moral fabric.
Something of Sion Sono's cheekiness is still present in The Forest of Love. But finding it requires a lot of time and patience. And if you blink you'll miss it amongst the hectic-ness of the plot and underwhelming characterisation. Some have said that for die-hard fans, this film is a treat. Meanwhile, I will say the opposite. If you are a fan, you'll want more from such a skilled filmmaker. We've had better before. And where The Forest of Love would have been shocking ten years ago, now lacks the lustre and finesse of his earlier works. This is fine-tuned Sono as he ticks off his boxes without ever really saying anything new. Perhaps this is his stepping stone to a greater project? Perhaps he dipped his toe into this pool of perversion whilst awaiting the enlightenment that will follow with his next project? Perhaps he's just being mischievous as ever?
Even so, I'm looking forward to his next project. I'm hoping for something better. He has some years to go; and there are stories only he can tell. The Forest of Love is low on the list of essential films. Check out The Hate Trilogy (The aforementioned Love Exposure, 2010's Cold Fish, 2011's Guilty of Romance), Himizu (2011) or his earlier works. That's where you'll find undiluted Sono. He's at his sharpest, poignant and intriguing. The Forest of Love is just a shrub in a catalogue of work blooming with hard-core rebellion and poignant sincerity.