Film / Reviews

'The Forest of Love': Netflix feature lets Sono be Sono

by James Hadfield

Contributing Writer

When Martin Scorsese or Alfonso Cuaron announce they’re releasing their latest films on Netflix, it’s apt to prompt hand-wringing among purists. But for Sion Sono, the arch provocateur of Japanese cinema, it’s more like he has found his natural habitat.

Streaming services give Sono an opportunity to vent the darker impulses he’s had to keep in check during his multiple forays into commercial filmmaking. In many ways, he’s a natural fit: His trademark blend of hysterical schlock and alternately rambling and raving narratives has always felt like a drunken soap opera, making it perfect for late-night binging.

“The Forest of Love” marks his return to filmmaking after suffering a heart attack earlier this year, just two days after wife Megumi Kagurazaka gave birth to their first child. But anyone expecting a more reflective work will be quickly disabused. For better or worse, this is peak Sono: a garish, gore-drenched S&M exploitation epic that plays like a compilation of his greatest hits without ever really breaking new ground.

The Forest of Love (Ai Naki Mori de Sakebe)
Rating
Run Time 151 mins.
Language JAPANESE
Opens STREAMING FROM OCT. 11

It hinges around an extremely ripe performance by Kippei Shiina as Joe Murata, an oleaginous con artist claiming to have graduated summa cum laude from Harvard and to be working for the CIA. He’s a tornado of charisma, inveigling himself into the life of a wealthy shut-in, Mitsuko (Eri Kamataki), on the tenuous excuse that he wants to return a ¥50 coin he borrowed from her years earlier.

While Mitsuko gets swept off her feet, former high-school classmate Taeko (Kyooko Hinami) — who directed her in an ill-fated lesbian production of “Romeo & Juliet” — sounds a note of alarm. After an earlier run-in with Murata wherein he tried to seduce every woman in her family, Taeko is understandably wary of this white-suited charmer.

She tips off a trio of aspiring filmmakers, including the nerdy Shin (Shinnosuke Mitsushima, recently seen in Netflix series “The Naked Director”), who decide to make a movie about Murata’s exploits. In the process, they become convinced that he is a wanted serial killer — which is unfortunate, because by that point he’s managed to appoint himself as the film’s producer.

Trying to keep pace with the story’s abrupt turns is part of the fun with Sono. Like his earlier “Cold Fish” (2010) and “Guilty of Romance” (2011), “The Forest of Love” is ostensibly based on true events, although it’s deliberately coy about the details.

More than any resemblance to real-life incidents, viewers will probably notice echoes of Sono’s earlier work. Schoolgirl suicide pacts, kinky sex, personality cults, graphic dismemberment, unhinged moviemaking wannabes: If you fed his entire filmography into a neural network and gave it half an hour to knock out a script, the results would probably look like this.

At his best, Sono pushes the emotional register so far into the red, he triggers the kind of catharsis a more sober-minded film would struggle to reach. “The Forest of Love” doesn’t quite get there, but there are some sublime moments, whether it’s a dreamlike sequence of schoolgirls dancing to Jun Togawa’s “Mushi no Onna,” or a climactic “big reveal” worthy of Agatha Christie.

At 151 minutes, it’s likely to exasperate his detractors and keep fans more than happy. And if this still isn’t sufficiently lunatic for your tastes, take heart: Sono’s next project is due to star Nicolas Cage.

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