Mourning Forest (Cert 12)
1 Disc Blu-ray/1 Disc DVD Dual Format (Distributor: Eureka) Running Time: 97 minutes approx.
Despite the supernatural sounding title of Japanese arthouse director Naomi Kawase’s fourth feature film, Mourning Forest doesn’t feature a spirit infested woodland area mysteriously killing people, instead it is a (very) quiet meditation on grief and redemption. Kawase draws on Buddhist doctrine for the framework of the story’s central tenet, the details of which are not fully explained for the uninitiated.
Machiko (Machiko Ono), a shy carer working at a retirement home in the countryside, is having a bit of bother with one elderly male patient Shigeki (Shigeki Uda), through the confusion of Machiko’s name being partly similar to that of his late wife Mako, along with a slight physical likeness.
However, they eventually bond and after Shigeki’s birthday, Michiko takes him out for a drive. The car gets stuck in a ditch and with Shigeki wandering off, the pair are left out in the forest alone. For Shigeki though this is fate as he believes they are in the same area his wife was buried, and he wants to find her resting place to get some closure.
There is a brief explanation before the end credits of a period of mourning known as Mogari and a Buddhist monk is on hand early on to share his theory of life to the elderly residents (“if you can eat, you are alive” is the basic gist); other than that Kawase leaves it all up in the air as to what Shigeki is doing, beyond an act born out of perpetual love.
Opening with 25 seconds of still trees followed by a similarly protracted wide shot of some gloriously verdant fields, the first sign of life comes via a procession gradually emerging stage right, largely obscured by the grassy hills. Intercut with clips of elderly men diligently creating props presumably connected to said procession, this beginning offer little hint of what is to follow.
Shot in natural light and with largely non-professional actors, the retirement home resonates more as a haven of melancholy than a quaint sanctuary of comfort and care for its senior clientele. This isn’t by design though, since head carer Wakako (Makiko Watanabe) is a positive and energetic woman, keen on keeping spirits up, even if she does resort to the standard patronising tone of voice.
It is the dour lighting and silent moments of introspection the residents slip into on their own time that tells us these are people long into their twilight years and what memories they have left tend to haunt them more than evoke fondness. This is true for Shigeki, still mourning his wife’s passing after 33 years, yet he is the most mischievous of the lot – maybe a result of dementia – manifest in a regressive, childlike persona.
Machiko has her own grief to deal with, the loss of her young son through an undisclosed manner but we get a significant clue later in the film when she and Shigeki are trapped in the forest when a powerful cascade of water hits them. In one of the more chilling moments of the film, Machiko’s gut-wrenching reaction to this and the fear that Shigeki had perished essentially provides all the information we need about that particular tragedy.
But this is the only real example of Kawase letting the audience in on what is happening and into the characters’ thoughts. Granted a story doesn’t have to be rife with excessive exposition and spoon-feed dialogue but giving us something to get a hook on would have been nice. As suggested earlier, if you know nothing about Buddhism (and I don’t) you wouldn’t understand much of what drives Shigeki in his quest to find Mako’s grave.
With sparse verbal communication between Shigeki and Machiko, it mainly befalls to Machiko’s instincts as a care to move the relationship forward, ensuring his is warm and hydrated during the night and so on. Yet, it is Shigeki who is able to offer Machiko the closure she needs with her grief, but done so in a symbolic manner played out like an epiphany, only without the ray of light from the heavens and the triumphant fanfare from the cherubs.
It’s all heavy stuff if you can connect with it, baffling if you can’t. Then again, if Kawase made this as a commercial film, it would lose its enigmatic lustre, no doubt succumbing to cheap sentimentality for the emotional texture. Unfortunately, by keeping everything so obscure and at arm’s length, it does border on the pretentious at times, possibly an unfair statement to make, but I can see some people feeling this way due to the excessive meandering and dense symbolism.
As ever though, a saving grace is found in the performances. Machiko Ono is sublime in her role, her slight frame, unassuming looks and dutiful politeness makes her appear typical, but behind this is a woman silently in pain; when Ono is tasked with letting this out, it is heartbreaking to watch. As a non-professional actor, Shigeki Uda is a remarkably astute and convincing sparring partner for Ono.
There is no question that Kawase has an interesting view of the world and in how she shares that with others. Visually this film is superbly shot, the external scenes of the countryside are joyous to behold, whilst the forest is suitably dank and ominous, again bolstered by the use of natural light for maximum effect.
Released on Blu-ray by Eureka, Mourning Forest has proven to be a Marmite film in its ten year existence – haunting and philosophical for some, obtuse and plodding for others. If you have the patience you’ll have half an idea of Kawase’s intent once the denouement arrives but prior to that, one finds themselves consumed more with the niggling narrative skips than any messages being imparted.
It may only run for 97 minutes but Mourning Forest is a slow film, almost inert at times, that makes the audience work very hard to decipher what Kawase is trying to say. Profound but not entirely persuasive.
1080p presentation on the Blu-ray
Progressive encode on the DVD
Uncompressed PCM audio on the Blu-ray
High Definition Stills Gallery
Booklet featuring statement from Naomi Kawase and Production Stills
Rating – ***
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