It's not often that I get excited about a new Sion Sono release. Not because I don't care for his films, on the contrary. Rather, it's a defense mechanism that tries to counter the growing disappointment during seemingly endless waits between local and international releases dates. There's none of that when Netflix is throwing money at a director of course, and so The Forest of Love [Ai-naki Mori de Sakebe], Sion Sono's latest, was available on day 1, in about 190 territories around in the world. As a fan of contemporary Japanese cinema, that's nothing less than mind-blowing.
Of course, Netflix doesn't have the best track record when it comes to delivering quality originals. While they've attracted some first-class directors over the years, the pay-off hasn't always been proportionate. Furthermore, it was a big unknown how Sono would deal with a potential audience of millions. It's one thing to just be yourself and see your work get picked up internationally, knowing from the start that your next film will be just one or two clicks away for 150+ million people could have weighed him down. Don't worry though, if anything Sono seems more eager than ever to show the world that he is one of the true mavericks of our time.
The Forest of Love feels like vintage Sono, which means it's about 50% anger and 50% pure love for cinema. It's hard to compare it directly to his previous films, but there's definitely some Love/Exposure in here and fans of his harsher, more relentless work will find much to like. Looking elsewhere, Sono's latest would probably make a superb double bill with Lars von Trier's The House Jack Built, if only as a showcase of how two outcast directors handle a somewhat similar serial killer story in their own, unique ways.
Sono's latest is based on a real-life serial killer case, but it's hard to imagine that with all the excess The Forest of Love remains true to the original events. The plot revolves around a couple of youngsters who plan on making a film together. In order to proceed though they require the help of Mitsuko, a shut-in who lost all grip on reality when four of her high school friends jumped to their death. At the same time Mitsuko is also courted by Joe, a strange, middle-aged conman whose reasons for pursuing Mitsuko remain unclear. When Joe gets mixed up in the film production, things quickly start to spiral out of control.
Sono's visual style is characterized by raw energy and there's plenty of that here. The Forest of Love is not his most beautiful work to date, but Sono has a great eye for lighting and the camera work is lively and energetic. In between there are some striking shots that further elevate the film and along the way the camera seems eager to pick up some pretty explicit gore. Nothing so bad or extreme though that it will push people over the edge. All in all The Forest of Love looks great, with a set of visuals that strongly reinforce the overall atmosphere of the film.
The soundtrack too is vintage Sono. A combination of more traditional soundtrack music and some classical interludes to spice things up. It's a solid soundtrack that supports the film well enough, but I do feel it fails to bring that little extra that would make the film stand out even more. Sono seems happy to rely on the inclusion of classical pieces to bring some extra character to his soundtracks, but the actual impact is quite limited. Overall though, the soundtrack is definitely on point. I do feel an extra word of warning is needed regarding the dub, as Netflix has added an English dub (?) that is truly atrocious. God knows what they were thinking, but please do yourself a favor and watch the film with the original Japanese voices.
The performances in The Forest of Love are dialed up to 11. That's not going to be to everybody's liking, but it's simply what a film like this needs. For the most part, the cast is void of familiar faces, even so lead actors Mitsushima, Hinami and Kamataki all put in solid performances. The real star of the film is Kippei Shîna though, who no doubt delivers one of his career-defining performances. Shîna goes well (well!) over the top, but that's exactly what his out-of-this-world character needs. The secondary cast does a good job too, with Denden (from Sono's Cold Fish) putting in the most notable performance.
Much of the film's appeal hinges on Shîna's character. If you're able and/or willing to go along with his madcap performance then you're in for a pretty crazy ride. If not, then I'm pretty sure the second part of the film will be a true ordeal to sit through. Shîna is irritating, grating and unsympathetic, but worst of all he seems to face no repercussions for his actions. The way he invades people's lives is purely based on confidence and acting power, overwhelming others by exploiting their weaknesses. It's not a pretty sight, then again that's what you can expect when watching a Sono film.
Within Sono's own oeuvre, The Forest of Love is an entry that ranks right below his best work. The fact that it was financed by Netflix gives it an extra dimension though. It's so extremely refreshing to have easy, day-1 access to films like these, that I hope it is successful enough to set a precedent. Regardless of all that, Sono's latest is another wild experience, full of energetic performances, manic camera work and excessive events. A fever trip that holds you prisoner and dazzles all the way through. It might be a tougher sell when you aren't familiar with Sono's work yet, but fans should rejoice, The Forest of Love is 200% Sono.