Mourning Forest (2007): Naomi Kawase’s Tale of Loss and Gried

Reviewed by Patrick Z. McGavin

Cannes Film Festival 2007–A sad, poetic feature about grief and loss experienced by two radically different people, The Mourning Forest requires a certain patience and understanding.

This is the new feature by Japanese director and multimedia artist Naomi Kawase. Interestingly, at the fiftieth anniversary of Cannes, her movie “Suzaku” won the Camera d’Or for best first feature. Those who surrender to the plaintive moods are likely to find significant emotional rewards.

The movie begins slowly and somewhat distractedly and appears divided between its beautiful and painterly images of the extraordinarily evocative mountain settings in the district of Tawara, in western Japan, and the interiors of a retirement home that initiate the story.

The story traverses the uncommon relationship of these two disparate people. Shigeki (Shigeki Uda) lives in the rural retirement home. His shock of gray streaked hair and lined face suggests an infinite sadness, a point driven home by his frequent attention getting outbursts. His most sympathetic listener and attendant at the home is the beautiful and serene Machiko (Machiko Ono), a staff worker. She is unusually alert and responsive to his needs, and appears a calming influence. She smiles quickly and easily though she harbors her own tragic loss, the death of her child revealed in flashback.

These expository and psychological details threaten to crush the subtle rhythms and mood of the opening twenty minutes. Every once in a while, a single shot, movement or sequence redeems or elevates an entire work. In The Mourning Forest, that happens at roughly the first third in a gorgeous and lyrically shaped interlude of the main characters engaged in a playful game of chase and pursuit in the densely beautiful lawn arrangement. Kawase opens the sequence with the camera close to the actors bodies and then magnificently pulls the camera back to a long telephoto shot that reveals the two human figures arranged against the visually dazzling symmetrical garden topiary.

It is a beautiful, rapturous moment that just as important shows their easy rapport and growing intimacy. Structurally it validates the somewhat confusing opening shots that focused extensively on the mountain landscapes. Following his birthday celebration, Machiko invites Shigeki on a drive through the countryside. On an isolated stretch deeper in the forest, she loses control of the car and it plunges into a ditch.

Unable to extricate the car from the ditch, the two are forced on foot. Shigeki is clearly fazed by the crash, his quiet and relaxed demeanor suddenly ruptured and the man is increasingly more spastic and uncontrollable in his movements. He attempts to flee from Machiko and she pursues him as the two move horizontally deeper into the knotty and twisted landscape of the forest. The balance of the movie has a tension and conflict colored by unpredictable movements.

Kawase restricts the tendency to sentimentalize the material. She also thankfully eschews the repeated opportunities to turn their plight into a larger allegory. The tone and mood changes, and it suddenly becomes an adventure in which Shigekis actions are shown not as pathological or demented though rather very precise and specific. As the two struggle over power and control, all manner of emotional and physical transactions play out.

In the most mesmerizing sequence, he is almost killed after being nearly swept away by a rising tide. Suffering shock and risking exposure, Shigeki finds shelter and builds a fire. Instinctively realizing the danger of hypothermia, she impulsively strips off her own clothes and rubs her warm, dry body against his in an effort to raise his body temperature. The gesture is not sexual but human that underlines their dependence on each other for their survival.

Their trek unfolds over two days and gradually the nature of their quest is not to be found or rescued, though rather conduct their own search mission to locate a highly valuable destination for Shigeki that she discovers is connected to the wife he has been mourning for 33 years. If the physical space the two negotiate is vast and unconquerable on many levels, the movie is not about nature though closure and finding the way to hold on to and consecrate lost memories or find what is beyond reach.

It leads to a powerful and revealing conclusion that synchronizes the films two part, rhyming structure that acquires a tactile beauty though also a profound sense of loss and rupture. The landscape photography of the opening or the shots of their small, almost ant-like bodies in the garden sequence underlines their fragility and entwined fates. Memorable in Suzaku and the Cannes 2000 competition title Eureka, Machiko is superb, her quiet strength and dignity nicely balanced against the eruptive nature of Shigeki. Astonishingly he is a non-professional who had no previous experience.

Visually The Mourning Forest is a marvel of quietly observant moments that gather a tremendous cumulative force. Somewhat unnecessarily the director has a closing note explaining the Japanese title, Mogari No Mori, a wholly unnecessary action given she has firmly and irrevocably established the movies tone and mood. It is a small movie beautifully and gently told, demonstrative of a confident talent rather than a declaration of faith.