Sunday, April 3, 2016

"The Forest" Another Opportunity to Reach Into the Darkness and Begin a Dialogue Against the Scourge of Mental Illness

Even though there was a minor eruption of protest over the making and marketing of the film, “The Forest”, a horror story set in the Aokigahara, the suicide forest of Japan, I personally did not find the film to be a cheap marketing ploy to exploit the tragic existence of such a place.   Those who study suicide, and suicide prevention, are aware that such places exist.  The Golden Gate Bridge being a real world example right here in the United States. There are other places…many other places. There is a Wikipedia page on this topic.  List of Suicide Sites.  

Those seeking an end, for whatever reason, need only have access to Wikipedia.

The Aokigahara, a forest at the base of Mt Fuji, is sadly one of the most popular places for suicide and the location for this film. It is, by all accounts, a beautiful dense forest, but tragically, a real place where many souls tormented with mental illness have chosen to end their own life.  In my opinion the movie, does not cheapen the torment, or the reality of mental illness.  Rather the movie serves up for the viewer a psychological thriller that portrays mental illness as demons of the mind.  In fact one line from the movie, perhaps more haunting than any of the visions of the dead and tortured souls that will appear on screen (it is a horror story after all) goes, “The visions are not real, they are in your mind”.   And thus begins a women’s break with reality as she frantically searches for her twin sister who entered the forest, seemingly in a quest to end her own life.

Earlier this year I responded to an article on FaceBook calling for the boycott of this film due to the insensitivity of the subject matter.  Here is that article.

Since the release of the movie, there have been other articles written to express a similar concern. Here is another one:

My own daughter, in fact, wrote a FB post supporting the boycott, which I also read.  At that time I   felt a similar level of indignation over the possible insensitivity to such a topic being cheaply exploited for profit.  However, I did mention in my own FB  post that I would  have to view the film before actually deciding on how right these protesters are...or, as I’ve become accustomed to realizing in today’s society, that any subject (which means all subjects) will quickly become politically incorrect and off limits if they offend anyone in the slightest of ways.

Well, after watching the movie, I have to disagree with the protest.  Not strongly, as in these folks (including my daughter and her friends) are completely wrong on the subject, but rather, to suggest to them that there are many ways for a conversation about mental illness to occur.  In fact, the very fact that we are having a conversation about the movie means we were having a discussion about suicide and it’s prevention.  A discussion we simply would not be having if we were talking about the upcoming release of Johnny Depp’s new “Alice in Wonderland” flick.

No, I believe, “The Forest” has a place in the dialogue.  To some extent, the mystery of the forest is revealed in the end, damping it’s allure.  And  as we see in the end with a twist that even M. Night Shyamalan could envy, there really is nothing supernatural happening in the forest. Shades of the movie “The Village” which was terrifying on first view--don’t let them in--and intellectually engaging on all subsequent viewings.  Does “The Forest” rise to the level of Shyamalan’s art? Perhaps not.  But it is also not as cheap, in an exploitative way, as those who are lodging the protest are saying.  This movie deals with the subject of mental illness, its causes, and the response of humans trying to cope with it including  those considering suicide and those trying to prevent it.  It’s just told in a different way...a way that just might not be everyone’s cup of tea.

Recently I posted a haunting song by the amazing def metal voice of David Draiman the lead singer of the band DISTURBED.  The song was a cover of the classic “The Sound of Silence” by Simon and Garfunkel, but done in an entirely new way, that is far from the sound of the original.  Yet is is equally as haunting, and in some ways, perhaps, more haunting.  It’s very existence is now and entry point into the musical world of DISTURBED.  Draiman is a voice for depression and suicide in his own way, having had first hand experience with suicide as a teenager.  Yet his approach to suicide awareness is not for the squeamish and will not appeal to most.  But it is not most people he is trying to reach, rather, it is those who have an alternative viewpoint to life, those who are different, those who may already be living in darkness. Those in the dark, are not necessarily going to look for answers in the light.  Sometimes it’s so dark where they are living that the only chance we have is to meet them in their darkness, take their hand, and try to lead them to a better place.  It may never be light in that place, but it may prove to be a safer place than where they live or may be headed.  Fear of the dialogue, fear of the darkness of these places,  keeps many of us from going into darkness to help.

So, with that long introduction to the movie, I will now give you my quick recap of how I interpret “The Forest” as a way to start the dialogue, not snuff it out in protest over things that we do not understand.  There are spoilers in my narrative to follow.  So perhaps it’s time to go see the movie, and then return.  At that point you are entitled to say I’m full of shit, but certainly not before.

The movie begins in the light.  We have the first sister, fully successful and married, living an apparent comfortable life  in the United States.  We discover she has an identical  twin sister.  Not to diminish the acting in this movie, the role of both sisters is masterfully portrayed by Natalie Dormer, the English Actor with a rising fan base from such things, as the “Game of Thrones”.  Now, when the creepy comes is when we see pictures of these twin sisters as children.  The only thing creepier than a creepy old photograph of a child, intentionally made to make the child look creepy, is a creepy picture of identical twin creepy children.  All is not right...clearly Sara, the heroine, has lived the more idyllic life.  She has a supportive, but somewhat dickish husband, when it comes to the topic of her twin sister Jess.  It seems Sara is the sister that came out right, has a life, whereas Jess, is the black sheep, always troubled and getting into some kind of trouble from which Sara must rescue her. Because they are identical twins, they share the gift of a mental connection.  Not strong extra sensory perception, but simply the mild connection that allows them to sense when either one of them is in trouble or pain...Jess of course, is the one always in trouble.

When Sara has that feeling  of peril, with regard to Jess, she begins to look for her  only to discover that Jess has ventured to Japan and has entered the Aokigahara Forest.  And  of course Sara also discovers that the Aokigahara is the fabled suicide forest at the base of Mt Fuji. Believing, and feeling, that Jess is still alive, Sara goes to Japan to save her we come to understand, a third attempt at suicide.  For those committed to the cause of the prevention of suicide it is well known that the number #1  indicator of a successful suicide is the presence of a previous attempt.  These bits of truth indicate to me that the writers of “The Forest” researched their subject or at least had advisers on the subject participating. Sara’s dickish husband, however, would prefer that she not get involved once again.  Which of course, we don’t know at the time, is what drives Sara on.

When Sara arrives in Japan, she begins to learn about the lure and lore of the forest.  She takes the train and attempts to enter the forest on her own even though she is not equipped to do so and recognizes this fact based on a series of encounters with the creepy and in particular the visit to the basement of a store on the fringe of the forest where bodies of unknown individuals have been retrieved from the forest.  She is told, numerous times, to stay on the trail. Realizing that Jess is not among the recently departed, and sensing that she is still alive, she decides to seek out a guide who can take her “off the trail” and deeper into the darker, more unknown areas of the forest.

The forest guide who arrives to take Sara off the trail is Michi.  A volunteer who goes into the forest to bring out the bodies of the dead.  This seems like a creepy occupation because of our belief that all who enter the forest will commit suicide.  What we discover about Michi that he is more concerned with bringing out the living than those bodies of the successful.  He tells Sara that she should not enter the forest because she is sad, and that should she go, the visions she will see will be only in her mind.  As they journey in Michi, fears the worst, yet Sara’s insistence that Jess is still alive gives him hope as well.  When they come across a tent in the forest Michi tells Sara to stay while he approaches the occupant of the tent.  When he returns he tells Sara that if someone enters the forest and brings a tent, they have not fully decided to end their  life.  He returns from his visit with the occupant and we discover that Michi has provided suicide counselling to the individual and that he believes this particular visitor might be alright.

As they continue deeper in the darkness of the forest they discover another tent.  Sara immediately recognizes it as belonging to her sister, Jess.  It is clear, based on her feeling, and what Michi has stated about those who bring a tent to the forest,  that she has not decided fully to take her own life and that there is hope.  As night begins to fall Michi advises that they leave and resume the search in the morning.  Sara, feeling so close now, refuses to leave despite the warnings.  The man who has accompanied them, a major red herring in the story to add a bit more of the creepy, decides to stay with Sara.  Michi, who knows better, leaves and tells them he will return the following day.

Visions occur throughout the night as the sadness Michi indicated exists within Sara’s heart begins to emerge.  We discover that Sara and Jess were orphaned at an early age when their parents were killed in a car accident.  We are led to believe that Jess suffered the trauma of this loss far greater than Sara, and it is what, perhaps, has led to her life on the fringe, a life many people who suffer from clinical depression, are all too familiar with.  A tumultuous, far from idyllic,  life.  The life Jess, but not Sara, has led.  But, clearly there is sadness in Sara’s heart because she is visited by these demons.

Throughout the night, as Sara tries to make sense of the ghostly visitors and their frightening message she becomes paranoid.  She doesn’t know who to trust and turns on the man who stayed with her in the forest, believing he is not the altruistic savior out there to help her find her sister.  In fact, she becomes convinced, that he is the architect of Jess’s disappearance.  As she flees from her perceived tormentor she encounters the evidence of many of the suicides the forest has claimed.  When suicide victims enter the forest and want their bodies to be discovered, they sometimes weave  a trail of string or colored tape through the trees.  She finds an unused ball of string and beings to weave her own trail through the forest.  This evidence is masterfully visualized through cinematography, panning back from the forest, we see many of these trails of colored ribbon strung helter skelter through the dark forest.  As she continues to panic, she beings to run and eventually falls through the forest floor and into a cave where more scary visions of the past are revealed.

Michi, who has now arrived at the campsite the following day, only to find it empty, organizes a forest wide search for Sara.  As the search continues Sara becomes more and more frantic. She has a vision of maggots, feeding in a cut in the palm of her hand, crawling up the veins in her wrist. Wanting to kill these maggots she begins to stab at them with her knife.  The pain of this stabbing is felt by Jess, who turns out, is still alive somewhere in the forest just as Sara has known all along. They sense each other's presence for the first time and they begin running and calling for each other. As they search for one another, Jess is led out of the forest and into the light of the search party but Sara is led further into the darkness of the forest.

This is when the truth of the past is revealed to Sara.  As it turns out, the true nature of their parents death was not in the car accident as she had believed.  Rather, their parents death was a murder/suicide at the hands of their father, who had shot their mother and then killed himself.  When she realizes that this is a truth she has suppressed all along the sadness in her heart becomes overwhelming and the demons in her head are able to take full possession of her.  The end is inevitable.  Sara is fooled by the demons in her head to take her own life in the forest while Jess reaches the safety of the search party.  Jess feels the demons in Sara’s head fall silent and knows her sister is gone.

Were any of the demons in the forest real?  Thankfully, there was no supernatural fight with some demon or devil like entity at the climax as happens in many of the junk films in this genre. The presence of such a cheap finale would have signaled to me that the critics of this movie are correct, that this is a cheap exploitation and insensitive to  the real forest and the tragic place it has become. But rather, to choose to portray the demons in Sara’s head, as a disease of the mind, give this movie credibility speaking out against the scourge of mental illness.

Is this a movie that should get the American Mental Health Counselors Association (AMHCA) seal of approval?  Perhaps not.  But as I said, those in the dark already  will seek out movies and messages contained in these genres.  The simple message that the demons are not real and can trick you into doing tragic things is blindingly simple.  If this movie begins the dialogue that leads to a single hand reaching into to a dark place in order to lead a single person who is suffering to safety, then I’m in favor of this message. From this perspective there is no reason to boycott this movie...