After shooting 15 movies and two TV shows this decade alone, hyper-prolific renegade filmmaker Sono Sion was rushed to a Tokyo hospital in February, where emergency surgery was performed to save his life. The gonzo auteur behind the gleefully demented likes of “Suicide Circle” and “Why Don’t You Play in Hell?” had just finished work on an unhinged Amazon Prime series called “Tokyo Vampire Hotel,” which may have been his wildest project thus far; high praise for someone whose previous career highlights include the likes of “Love Exposure” (a four-hour epic about a teenage Catholic who falls in with a secret cult of up-skirt panty photographers) and “Tokyo Tribe” (a hyper-violent rap opera about a gangster who torches an entire city to the ground to compensate for his micro-penis).
Needless to say, the only thing less surprising than the fact that Sono suffered a heart attack is the fact that it doesn’t really seem to have slowed him down.
Growing impatient while he waited for production to begin on his English-language debut (that would be “Prisoners of the Ghostland,” which rather obviously stars Nicolas Cage), the 57-year-old Sono decided to sneak in a quick little Netflix offering on the side; you know, a casual, “The Irishman”-sized epic about serial killers, sexual trauma, the collateral damage of artistic creation, plus several of the filmmaker’s other favorite themes. The only concession that Sono appears to have made with “The Forest of Love” — an exuberant psychosexual bloodfeast made by the kind of movie-obsessed madman whose irrepressible life force can only be expressed through a camera lens — is that the finished product has been chopped down into an 150-minute feature. Perhaps that’s for the best: Inspiring as it is to see that Sono hasn’t missed a beat, even his most diehard fans may feel that his latest is long enough.
Inspired by some gruesome true events that Sono warps beyond all recognition, “The Forest of Love” is a primordial soup of a movie that swirls William Shakespeare and Oliver Stone into a giggling horrorfest that pinballs through time while still feeling strangely of its moment. It’s hard to know where to start with the story, a problem that appears to have thwarted Sono as well. The opening chapter of the film — which is still divided into uneven episodes, despite eschewing the miniseries format — erupts with so much seemingly unrelated information that you’ll spend most of the initial hour trying to connect the dots (pro tip: don’t bother).
Here are the facts: A serial killer is on the loose, and the only legitimate suspect appears to be a sociopathic con man named Joe Murata (character actor Kippei Shîna, who elevates Murata into perhaps the most contemptibly disarming of Sono’s many charismatic monsters). Even in a cartoon film world that feels like it was co-designed by Hieronymus Bosch and Dario Fulci, Joe manages to stand out; he’s a lothario parody who speaks in a “seductive” low voice, turns even the most benign gesture into a dramatic pose, and aggressively kisses every woman he meets on the mouth because when you’re a star you can do anything (the Trumpian overtones are impossible to ignore, even if you aren’t looking for them). None of Joe’s victims seem to enjoy his violations, nor believe his claims that he graduated summa cum laude from Harvard before working for the CIA, but he blows into their lives with such forceful inevitability that they all succumb to the sheer inertia of the abuse that follows.
Joe’s latest target is a hikikomori named Mitsuko (Kamataki Eri), a self-professed virgin who lives with her affluent but intensely overbearing parents in Tokyo; he lures her out of the house with a ¥50 coin and professes his undying love. Mitsuko seems delighted, but a former high-school classmate recognizes the danger. A sexy, damaged nihilist whose anger towards the world is contrasted against the apathy she feels towards her own body, Taeko (Hinami Kyoko, perfecting another Sono archetype) has first-hand experience with Joe’s particular brand of misogyny.
Taeko’s limp, her blue-streaked bob, and her penchant for wearing fetish gear in public may have predated her encounter with Joe — who infected her family with the effortlessness of a virus and had sex with every woman in the house — but the awful burn marks on the inside of her thighs are a different story. “Memories are life’s scars,” she growls at anyone who will listen. “Create a scar and move forward!”
The unabashedly sex-obsessed Sono has been criticized for sensationalizing the male gaze (his stunted, hormonal protagonists often see the world as a bra strap waiting to be plucked), but “The Forest of Love” is a harrowing rejoinder to for-hire Sono films like “The Virgin Psychics.” This is a movie that doesn’t follow the linear progression of a typical plot so much as it adheres to the wounded logic of living with abuse, and the manifold ways in which that burden can reorient someone’s moral compass.
It’s also a movie that reckons — perhaps regretfully — with the fine line between performing trauma and enacting trauma, and how the mania of artistic creation can accommodate any number of sins. “The Forest of Love” is too deranged and un-didactic to cohere into a clear statement on this (or any other) subject, but it’s hard to shake the casually dehumanizing nature of Joe’s desire, and the passive way that his victims soak it into their skin. At times it feels like the relationship between an artist and their audience. Or, as we see in the memorable scene where Joe reinvents himself as a beloved pop star who assaults his band members, the relationship between an uncompromising artist and their collaborators.
Is that enough to make “The Forest of Love” into some kind of warped apologia? It’s hard to say, especially once the movie is renovated into a grind-house of mirrors. Mitsuko and Taeko, we learn early on, were castmates in their high school’s lesbian production of “Romeo & Juliet” (an idea that prompts a typically direct line of Sono dialogue, when one of the characters declares: “This is a girl’s school — let’s fall in love with girls!”). The show, however, ended in tragedy even before it began, as the girls all got high on hazardous material they stole from their chemistry class, stood on the edge of the school’s roof, and decided to play a fun game of “last one to plummet into the parking lot wins.”
But Sono isn’t done blurring the line between art and agony. Enter: Shin (Mitsushima Shinnosuke), a bright-eyed dweeb who’s built like Adam Driver. When a pair of wannabe filmmakers discover Shin busking on the streets of Tokyo, they invite him to join their DIY collective. The boys have the scrappy energy that Sono himself has relied on for the last 30 years, they just lack his genius for generating story ideas. That is, until they meet Joe Murata, conclude that he must be the serial killer everyone’s talking about, and decide to make a micro-budget movie about his supposed exploits.
Joe being the kind of seductive charlatan who can turn any crowd of people into a cult of personality, he decides to bankroll the film, and eventually even strong-arms his way into directing it. “I work really hard to turn my lies into reality,” he confesses at one point, and it’s queasy to watch him at work. That turns out to be an unstable process, and “The Forest of Love” is at its most horrifying and least enjoyable during the endless middle section that focuses on the molten state that can art can assume during its making. Families are destroyed, people are debased, and everyone is turned into mulch for the creative energy that binds them together; things eventually tip into a kind of insanity that will be familiar to longtime Sono fans, with one long sequence illustrating the specifics of how a human body might be diced into pieces and liquidated in order to hide the evidence.
As frenzied as Sono’s best work, but as unfocused as some of his worst, “The Forest of Love” is hard to find your way through. It’s repetitive and self-contradictory in a way that Sono doesn’t always seem to have under his control; it’s rare to see a movie this sensitive towards female trauma also be so happy to indulge in it, and that dilemma isn’t as productively expressed here as it has been in some of the director’s previous work. But Sono’s natural discordance is part of what makes him so necessary. Even the most extreme DIY filmmakers are seldom this feral or willing to follow their muse into the darkness. “In movies,” one of Shin’s young friends proclaims, “we have total freedom!” “The Forest of Love” is a muddle, but it unimpeachably proves that adage true. Fingers crossed Sono will continue to do just that in the future.
“The Forest of Love” is now streaming on Netflix.