Sion Sono is well-known for his subversive genre work, with gruesome body horror, nihilistic punk philosophy and black humour. “The Forest of Love” is a prime example of his oevre. In the same vein as “Cold Fish”, which took for inspiration a series of horrific murders, “The Forest of Love” also begins with an note that this is “Based on a True Story”, though as things progress that statement becomes harder and harder to believe. The case on which it is based is one of depraved sadism, abuse, and torture. Sono’s film manages to capture the despicable nature of the crimes, but also throws in many elements of his own creation in a bizarre blend of satire and bloody crime drama. The film begins with a young man, Shin (Shinnosuke Mitsushima), recently arrived in Tokyo meeting up with two film fanatics, Jay (Young Dais) and Fukami (Dai Hasegawa), who dream of entering the Pia Film Festival and becoming great directors. The three soon begin working together and meet up with Taeko (Kyoko Hinami), who introduces them to Mitsuko (Eri Kamataki). Taeko and Mitsuko are erstwhile high-school friends who drifted apart after one of their classmates died in tragic circumstances. Mitsuko is approached by a man, Joe Murata (Kippei Shiina), who claims to want to return a 50 yen coin to her, but it soon becomes obvious that he is a dangerous conman. Everyone Murata comes into contact with seems to get drawn into his orbit, despite being a completely despicable human being. The three young men decide he would make an excellent subject for their film, believing him to be responsible for several murders that have occurred recently. The truth is far more shocking as he subjects them and the women to a series of sadistic games, fleeces them of their money, and drags them into a hellish world of torture and killing, seemingly with little reason.
Kippei Shiina plays Murata with a sickening relish as a completely amoral human who cares for nobody but himself. His charisma is skin deep and his egocentric sadism is hard to stomach. His psychopathy is succinctly summarised by him in the opening scene when he describes the act of killing as akin to losing your virginity, something that once it is done it provokes no great change, it is simply a meaningless transition to becoming a murderer. Kyoko Hinami is perhaps the standout performance and the character of Taeko is the emotional heart of the drama. Her behaviour is often incomprehensible, but she seems self-aware enough to finally realise the horror of her situation. “The Forest of Love” is a film that seems determined to provoke a reaction, whether that is laughter or revulsion, which it does numerous times. Sono knows how to play the audience, confounding them with sudden shifts in tone and style that play alongside the warped characters to create a disorienting experience. The scene where Murata breaks out a mini piano to serenade his girlfriend’s parents is one such scene that is completely ridiculous and seems to come straight from a musical comedy, not something you would expect in a film that also features sado-masochistic electrocution and dismembered corpses. Another prime example is when two characters are frolicking with a hose as they wash down a room that has just been used to cut up a murder victim.
“The Forest of Love” may be a little overlong, a bizarre work that shows a creative mind throwing everything he has at it and hoping some of it works. For the most part it does, although many moments will be familiar to those who have seen “Cold Fish”, “Strange Circus”, “Love/ Exposure”, “Suicide Club” and other examples of Sono’s more extreme filmography.
The characters of Shin, Fukami and Jay, creations of Sono’s who almost feels like they have stumbled into this crime story from another film, are a clear reminder that the film should be seen as a commentary on events and society rather than a straightforward retelling of a true crime drama. They are fascinated by the crimes of Murata, going so far as to become directly involved in them. In what is perhaps a self-referential moment, Jay explains that he loves film because you can do anything you want, including travelling the world having sex and killing people. Jay can be seen as Sono inserting himself into the film to comment on the fascination people have with abhorrent behaviour. As for the crimes, the film offers very little in the way of an explanation, outside of Murata being a manipulative person who is able to convince others to join him. It does however create a visceral sense of dread and revulsion for the crimes and the way people are treated by him.
This is definitely worth a watch if you are a fan of Sion Sono’s extreme films. There are many moments that will make you squirm, laugh or want to turn away in disgust. Sono may be re-treading familiar themes and ideas but the quality and shock value are no less than in those earlier works.