It’s 2016, people. And that means that it’s finally time to start treating all cultures as equal and worthy of respect, even if we may not necessarily understand them! Right?
Well, according to The Forest, maybe not. The film, directed by Jason Zada, takes on the magical and mystical setting of the “Suicide Forest” of Japan, where people go to say goodbye to this fair Earth. But hold on for a minute, because this “magical and mystical” setting is a real place – the Aokigahara Forests of Japan. And people really are killing themselves there.
*Note: The author of this blog post is boycotting the movie, and therefore has not actually seen The Forest. All commentary and reviews are based off of summaries, critical reviews, and news articles.
I can name three things that are wrong with The Forest: it’s a poorly written movie, it makes light of Asian mental health stigma and suicide, and it uses a real location of cultural significance to Japan as an exotic backdrop for cheap entertainment.
Now, the first one I can excuse. Who doesn’t love a good (but terrible) horror film? Why, I still remember with great fondness the time I watched Attack of the Killer Tomatoes (27% on Rotten Tomatoes) with friends–a fantastic bonding experience and an excellent use of one hour and twenty-three minutes. If that’s all The Forest (11% on Rotten Tomatoes) aimed to do, I would be totally content to allow others to spend that hour and thirty-five minutes however they chose.
But entertainment, no matter how shallow or meaningless, is not created in a bubble. In a modern age where mass media (of which horror is a major genre) grows more and more influential each year, content creators and audience members alike must be wary of the media they produce and consume.
So how does this film ignore those responsibilities? Let’s take a look at the plot. Sara Price, a young, Caucasian woman played by Natalie Dormer, ventures into the “Suicide Forest” to save her twin sister. While there is nothing inherently ignoble about saving a loved one from suicide, Sara’s literal quest is marred by creepy apparitions, Japanese ghosts (or yurei), and rotten corpses strewn about, even deep into the forest. The very real causes-and-effects of suicide, such as depression, self harm, anxiety, and stress are smoothed over and ignored – in one scene, as the Japanese guide tries to keep a Japanese man from killing himself, Sara and another Caucasian man have a side conversation about her sister. I guess when Asians are in danger of killing themselves, it’s not as riveting or deserving of attention as the possibility that a white woman might. Never mind the fact that Japan (and many Asian cultures) holds a certain stigma against suicide. Never mind the fact that Asian-Americans (especially those who were born in or immigrated early to the United States) have a higher risk of mental illness than their parents and are less likely to seek or receive treatment than their white peers.
So tell me what kind of message that sends to Asian American audience of The Forest when they see their invisible, yet real, struggles erased on the big screen.
Furthermore, The Forest is guilty of another classic faux-pas: the use of an Asian setting as an “foreign” and “alien”, fit for ridicule. If this sounds familiar, that might be because another production Generasian has reported on, The Mikado, does the same thing. It certainly wasn’t okay even through the satirical lens that The Mikado offers, and it certainly isn’t okay in The Forest.
Rather than accurately portraying the already creepy Aokigahara Forest (seriously! I’m genuinely afraid!), The Forest chooses to find its scares in jump cuts and hallucinations, often pitting Sara as the unwitting Caucasian lens into the strange and mysterious world of… modern day Japan. Sara fights to understand sushi, suggesting that the complexity of the film’s heavier themes are surely lost on her–not necessarily because she is unintelligent, but because it is painted on foreign bodies that she (and the audience) are forcibly distanced from.
I want to make a clear note to anyone who is confused here: it is not difficult to understand people with a different skin color from you. It is not impossible to understand a culture that is not your own. No, what cripples Sara, and The Forest as a result, is not the stark and insurmountable racial divide that separates Japanese suicide from White American suicide. It is the film’s desire to build fear off of the “abnormalities” of a culture, rather than the haunting depths of a universal human problem.