Imagine a Japanese horror film called The Bridge, in which a man travels to San Francisco after hearing that his troubled twin brother was last seen on the Golden Gate Bridge—notoriously a spot where people go to kill themselves. He learns from a string of kooky, panic-mongering locals that people often hear voices or see bad things while on the bridge, and that demons can latch themselves on to your sadness and trick you into doing awful things. But he gets a native guide to take him there, and embarks on a journey where he has visions of giggling, demented American school girls, and is chased by angry spirits who were among the more than 1,600 people whose lives were unwittingly claimed by the bridge.
If this movie existed, and thank goodness it doesn’t, it would’ve been a disaster in all the ways The Forest is. The new horror film, directed by Jason Zada, stars Natalie Dormer as Sarah, a young American woman who travels to Japan because her psychic twin sense tells her that her sister, Jess, is in trouble. It turns out Jess, who has a history of mental illness, has gone into the Aokigahara Forest, known also as the Sea of Trees or, in catchier parlance, “The Suicide Forest.” With the help of a hot travel writer who materializes in a bar (Taylor Kinney) and a wise but timid Japanese guide, Sarah decides to search for Jess herself, despite all the warnings that spooky things happen to those who stray off the path. The Forest does a lot of things in its 95-minute run: It drags, it makes fun of weird Japanese food, it has Jess trip and fall precisely one million times, it piles on the jump scares. But crucially, it doesn’t make the slightest sincere effort to portray the Aokigahara forest with the respect or sensitivity that such a real-life place deserves.
This isn’t to police what should or shouldn’t be “off-limits” for horror. And not every horror film needs to make a grand point about society: The Forest likely had no ambitions of being more than some easy, low-budget, winter box-office fare. But if a film decides to tell a story about a real-life place—that still exists, that will likely be the site of future suicides, that is freighted with cultural complexity—then that film assumes a kind of moral burden, whether it wants to or not.
The Forest tosses this burden aside quite handily. It plays up how much of an outsider Sarah feels in a strange land, how disorienting it is to be the lone white face in a sea of (literally) cackling and ogling foreign ones. Her isolation becomes more complete once she enters the forest, though part of that is her fault—she does her best to lag behind the others, or run off into the trees by herself at night. Rather than playing on the atmospheric eeriness of the forest, the film resorts to having a rotating cast of suicide ghouls pop out from the brush. (Dormer, who shines as a fan-favorite character on Game of Thrones, doesn’t feel at home in her first horror-movie role, but the weak script doesn’t do her many favors.)
There’s a bit of sad backstory to Sarah and Jess that explains why the former feels so driven to rescue the latter, and that attempts to make the mythos of Aokigahara more immediately relevant. But whatever storytelling or visual points the film may have scored (the forest’s ethereal beauty translates well to the screen) vanish in the final act, which delivers a strange, cynical, and ultimately empty, conclusion.
The. Forest. Is. Real. So the ads for the film want potential viewers to believe. But The Forest’s embrace of the word “real” extends only so far as it lends the movie “based on a true story” cred. Meanwhile, the story itself inflates—and invents—mystical sources of death and despair while doing all it can to ignore the very ones rooted in actual human experience. Demon corpses that intone in English, “Turn around, Sarah,” and shapeshifting Japanese ghosts, and shrieking animals make for simpler cinema than the actual-real reasons that can lead people to commit suicide: mental illness, isolation, demographic risk factors, social and cultural pressures.
It’s one thing to exclude any acknowledgment that suicide is a major public-health issue in Japan (or to include a single line in the film aimed soberly at suicide prevention). It’s yet another for the film to shrug off empathy for the people who die in the forest. During a scene where the forest guide tries to talk a man out of killing himself, Sarah and Kinney’s character engage in some small talk about Jess, as if reminding the audience with whom their concern should really lie. The Verge’s Emily Yoshida, who did an excellent job of unpacking The Forest’s egregious whitewashing, deciphered one of the film’s disturbing messages: “Japanese people don’t feel death like we do.”
With no compelling characters, scares, or plot points to redeem The Forest, the best option for those curious about Aokigahara is probably to watch a 20-minute 2005 VICE documentary about it. In the painful but humane film, the geologist Azusa Hayano actually meets a man who has entered the forest to die and gently urges him to leave. At another point, Hayano finds a skeleton. (“You know, even if you stare at a suicide corpse, it can’t attack you,” he says. “So it’s not terrifying.”) Toward the end, Hayano discovers a collection of flowers and some chocolates, likely left by the family of a suicide victim. “You think you die alone, but that’s not true. Nobody is alone in this world,” Hayano says. It’s a sentiment with which The Forest, by its ending, couldn’t disagree more.