by Taylor Thornburg
Shakespeare, suicide pacts, and a tube top that says simply “Seinfeld and Chill”—this is just the tip of the iceberg for those brave enough to stream Japanese filmmaker Sion Sono’s latest feature Forest of Love (2019) on Netflix. Forest of Love stars Japanese screen favorites Kippei Shiina, Kyoko Hinami, and Shinnosuke Mitsushima. Like much of Sion Sono’s earlier works, a succinct summary of this film is practically impossible. In the barest possible terms, Forest of Love is about the drama of an obvious, but charismatic, conman posing as an artist who exploits the well-to-do families that send their daughters to a prestigious girl’s school. Like a low but constant hum from a forest full of summer cicadas, Sono juxtaposes his conman’s drama against the backdrop of a mysterious series of murders that adds an anxiety to the film that eagerly inflates its mania like gas under pressure.
Forest of Love is big, hyperbolic, and strange, and while Sion Sono does not necessarily justify its 150 minute run-time, he doesn’t waste it either, for Forest of Love is genuinely fascinating. Who’s to say what Netflix agreed to in order to get exclusive distribution rights? Who’s to say what Sion Sono promised to provide? It seems like he compromised very little, if anything, fulfilling this particular vision. It is neither the measured mis-en-scene that defines the contemporary Western art house nor the egregious spectacle that defines its blockbusters. It is true maximalism. “More is more,” Sion Sono seems to shout, and this film wants for nothing. What else should audiences expect out of a filmmaker responsible for pictures like Anti-porno or Why Don’t You Play In Hell? In the film itself, the conman posing as artist assumes control of a film project, and literally makes the commentary that cinema is life and that film is joy, anger, happiness, and sadness, in so many words, the four major, most extreme, emotional corners that constitute the human experience and span its entirety. In Forest of Love, Sion Sono pushes human experience to the absolute extreme in unique and interesting ways.
Its conman suggests serious self-doubt about the meaning and value of artists and that which they produce. In a loud and sometimes confused voice, Sono wonders whether or not the artist is a fraud, an abuser, or an extortionist. He agonizes over whether art is only as valuable as the lifestyle that artists derive from it or if it can meaningfully connect people, and even if it connnects people, at what cost does it connect them?
That being said, an important element of the extreme that Sono explores is the intentional process behind it. For the most part, it really feels like Forest of Love meaningfully probes many ideas, albeit in breathless rushes and at varying depths. For the most part, Forest of Love seems to address the roles and responsibilities of artists in society. Its conman suggests serious self-doubt about the meaning and value of artists and that which they produce. In a loud and sometimes confused voice, Sono wonders whether or not the artist is a fraud, an abuser, or an extortionist. He agonizes over whether art is only as valuable as the lifestyle that artists derive from it or if it can meaningfully connect people, and even if it connnects people, at what cost does it connect them? In a twist ending, Sono not-so-subtly suggests that in the thrall of creation, artists may unwittingly make media that more sinister minds can appropriate as dangerous weapons. Forest of Love faintly evokes terms like “fake news,” “post truth,” and “hyper-reality,” and loudly condemns oblivious artists for permitting media that undermines the validity and worth of the work for which other more conscientious artists may be responsible.
While not perfect, Forest of Love is an engaging and undeniably entertaining movie that bursts at the seams with ideas and creativity. It is a maddening film about the madness of film and media more broadly. It won’t be for everyone. It might even meet the extreme ends of anger and sadness in some, but for those that can clench their fists and ride the wave, find the joy and happiness in this work of art, it’ll be a total maelstrom of delight and smart sensation.
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