The archetypal dark forest has long sheltered mysterious spirits in our collective imagination, manifesting in diverse sources ranging from Midsummer’s Night Dream to Twin Peaks. In Naomi Kawase’s Mourning Forest (Mogari no Mori), the woods are indeed haunted for two characters united through circumstances and in their grief. Winner of the 2007 Cannes Grand Prix, Forest (Japanese trailer here) is the demanding but prestigious opening night feature for the Japan Society’s Japan Cuts Festival, receiving its New York premiere tonight.
Clearly, Kawase is not a filmmaker to be rushed. Her story is simple, but she takes her time with it. Mourning her young son and spurned by her husband, Machiko takes employment in a friend’s remote home for the elderly. One of her apparently senile charges, Mr. Shigeko, initially takes exception to her presence, perhaps due to the similarity between her name and that of his late wife Mako. Eventually they form a bond, evidently based on their shared inner sorrow.
When Machiko ventures into the woods with Shigeko in search of his wife’s grave, the film hints at the supernatural, with the forest almost becoming a mystical entity onto itself. While the film seems to offer a dramatic clue as to how Machiko’s son perished, Kawase prefers ambiguity to neatly packaged moments of catharsis. She is also not afraid to let the camera linger over a beautiful visual, disregarding such mundane concerns as pacing, plot development, and dialogue.
Forest is poetic in its conception, benefiting from the honestly emotive performances of its two main leads. Shigeki Uda is quite convincing as the elderly lost soul, and Machiko Ono is heartbreaking as the grieving mother. Nakase does not make it easy for them either, allowing for little dialogue, while often filming at very close-range.
It is highly unlikely you will see Forest pop up at your local multiplex. It is a serious film by a serious director, featuring truly outstanding performances. While there are moments of emotional payoff, working through the film to get there is often an agonizingly slow process. For dogged cineastes, it is a high profile beginning to the Japan Cuts festival’s twelve days of contemporary Japanese film.