By JOSEPH HA
Sion Sono’s Netflix film “The Forest of Love” (2019) follows a nonsensical plot that is difficult to keep up with because it is full of tonal changes. There is so much packed into this film’s story that I want to throw up my hands and tell everyone to open their computers and go to Netflix to see the plot. However, my obligation to provide a clear outline still exists, so I will do my best.
The film follows an ensemble cast consisting of three young filmmakers (Shin, Jay, and Fukami), two young women with a tragic past (Mitsuko and Taeko), and a con artist named Joe Murata, whose deeds bring everyone together. While the film bounces between the main story and flashbacks, it’s best to start in the past, for clarity’s sake.
In their high school years, Mitsuko and Taeko put on a production of “Romeo and Juliet” with their classmate Eiko. Eiko and Mitsuko play the eponymous characters — with Eiko as Romeo and Mitsuko as Juliet — while Taeko directs the show. Eiko and Mitsuko form a romance, but Eiko also has a secret relationship with Taeko. One day, Eiko dies from an accident, and “Romeo and Juliet” is canceled.
Flash forward years later, and Mitsuko and Taeko reconnect after Taeko arrives at her house with Shin, Jay, and Fukami. However, the reunion turns sour when Taeko and Mitsuko argue over Mitsuko’s reclusiveness and virginity. Later, Joe Murata calls Mitsuko and poses as an old high school friend who wants to reconnect with her. Despite her suspicion, Mitsuko decides to meet with Joe anyway. Following the pair is Taeko and the filmmaking trio, who know that Murata is up to no good and plan to expose him. The subsequent events are insignificant because the plot becomes a fountain spewing senseless violence, nihilistic madness, excessive gore, and loads of narrative twists. Even the two concluding major twists don’t add anything to the story; they are just another block in the film’s elevated tower of confusion.
Watching “The Forest of Love” was an unpleasant experience. This cinematic trip was a maze of tiresome “Saw”-like twists and turns, where characters’ personalities ricochet between hesitant morality and gleeful depravity. For instance, in one scene, the filmmakers Jay and Shin are seemingly horrified and disgusted by Joe Murata’s physical abuse and perverse exploits with his girlfriend, Mitsuko, but then minutes later, Jay and Shin delightedly strike a banker Joe orders them to attack.
The protagonists’ nihilistic selfishness, along with the horrible violence and abuse both inflicted upon and by every individual, makes this film a thematic sequel to “Joker.” Of course, “The Forest of Love,” a Japanese film with no connections to DC comics, is not literally the sequel to “Joker,” a comic book movie about the supposed origins of Batman’s archnemesis. But admittedly, if “Joker” is an origin story for a character with no regard for morality, then the protagonists in “The Forest of Love” are the logical thematic result of such an origin story, with the film’s aesthetics also reflecting the characters’ outlandish, cloudy immorality.
A problem with modern films featuring nihilistic immorality is that moral depravity is portrayed as hip. The cinematic nihilism in biopics of famed serial killers, such as Ted Bundy or Jeffrey Dahmer, or in Heath Ledger’s performance in “The Dark Knight” (2008), is captivating for the average viewer since it exposes the darkest depths of human nature in a fashionable, trendy presentation. Yet “The Forest of Love” tears down this flashy style and portrays the same degeneracy but with different cinematic spices that made me feel sick. Why follow the protagonists’ journey if their every move casually moves closer to utter wickedness?
If there ever is a sequel to “Joker,” I hope that it’s as distasteful as “The Forest of Love” so that people can move on to other movies. Movie-goers may be awed at the moral abyss the modern screen displays, but better stories come from characters who struggle against this abyss, whether they succeed or not.