The Mourning Forest Review

Grief is such a powerful emotion. It has very personal implications for those experiencing the loss of a loved one. It has also produced some incredibly powerful and thought provoking films that cover a wide variety of different genres, from The Babadook, Jackie, A Single Man, Truly Madly Deeply to Ghost. This month another film about grief graces our Blu-ray shelves in the form of Naomi Kawase's The Mourning Forest.

The film follows Machiko, a carer in a retirement home and Shigeki, a widower and sufferer of dementia who lives at the home. Both are dealing with the loss of a loved one: Machiko lost a child while Shigeki lost his wife. One day while driving around the countryside the two find themselves together stranded on a country road with a broken down car. Suddenly, Shigeki makes for a massive forest and Machiko is forced to follow him. The two get lost amongst the trees with nothing to guide them but Shigeki's drive to find something that will connect him to his wife.

It may have won the Grand Prix at Cannes in the year it was released, and it may have been beautifully shot, but The Mourning Forest is something that keeps itself at a distance. This is not the fault of our two leads, Machiko Ono as Machiko and Shigeki Uda as Shigeki, who both do an adequate job of playing their parts. Machiko is shy and quiet, persecuted at home and at work, while Shigeki has the challenge of playing someone with dementia. I think that the blame for this disconnect lies with director Naomi Kawase.

Naomi Kawase is a documentary filmmaker and thus her cinematography and tone for The Mourning Forest is grounded in that type of aesthetic: the intimate close-ups, those long unbroken takes with a hand-held camera and a quietness to the film that can make you pay attention or that can drive you to distraction. Like most Japanese films there are some beautiful cutaways, the wind in the trees, flowers, sunlight dappling a field, all shot with an appreciation for everything growing and green. It is certainly helped by a 1080p video track and a 1.85.1 aspect ratio as well as a narrow depth of focus that leaves everything feeling ethereal and mystical.

The sound is minimal and realistic, and it sounds wonderful either on a 5.1 DTS track or uncompressed PCM. When not reading the optional subtitles for the minimal dialogue, you can hear every leaf, every twig snap and crunch as our two main characters make their way through the forest. It is truly an almost spiritual experience at times, seeing and hearing the forest surround and contain the characters, it becomes a character in itself thanks to some very simple cinematography. There is one brief moment where you can see what I believe to be the cameraman’s knee, but it is a well shot film regardless of that mistake.

The film itself moves at a snail’s pace with half of it taking place in the care home before the main plot kicks in. There are shot’s that last forever and the last one of Machiko laughing seems odd and out of place and hints that maybe the filmmaker has been playing a joke on the viewer. There also seems something calculated about the film and feels very similar to every other film that has a ponderous plot and hand held cinematography.

The cinematography is gorgeous and definitely adds something to it but I couldn't get past the obvious feeling that there was someone behind the camera, (especially when we saw their knee). The camera shake adds realism to the piece, but in the wrong way; I was always aware of the fiction of the film and thus could never truly place myself with the characters and their grief as I knew that they were only actors playing roles and this is exasperated by the way that Naomi Kawase chose to name the characters after her leads. While some will say that this is a thematic blending of fiction and reality, in my mind it damages the film greatly almost like a magician revealing his/her tricks and so it comes across more like a crew of amateurs farting about in a wood.

I think that the best way to describe the film is like finding a beautiful tree in a wood, something that stands strong and tall, with green leaves and low hanging branches, perfect for climbing and exploring. However, when you approach the tree you find that it has been hollowed out by rot and crumbles to your touch. This is emphasised by the lack of extras on this release.

Overall, The Mourning Forest despite its attempts at meaningful discussions of grief and the sumptuous mood feels empty because there is no connection to the characters or how they feel. It seems to be more of a certain type of filmmaking that I never fully connect with, the handheld, real drama. It doesn't add anything to the conversation and is probably best avoided unless you are a hardened Japanophile.

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The Mourning Forest is a beautiful thing to behold, but once you go beyond visuals it feels cynical and hollow.


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