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!”
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