The Mourning Forest (Mogari No Mori)



CANNES -- Naomi Kawase's "The Mourning Forest" is a slow-moving and self-conscious art film that achieves a certain power in its final moments, but getting there is a tough slug. Muted dramaturgy and too many time-killing moments -- the film might actually have worked as a 30-minute short -- burns off audience interest in the characters' dire circumstances.

Unaccountably, the Cannes jury awarded this Japanese-French production the Grand Prix, the festival's prestigious runner-up award. This honor should go a long way to help the film win more festival dates. But audiences will only puzzle at the honor, and theatrical success outside of Japan and France will be highly limited.

The first act of the film takes place in a retirement home, where many of the residents suffer from senile dementia. Gradually, the focus settles on a female caregiver, Machiko (Machiko Ono), who is new to the facility, and the elderly Shigeki (non-pro Shigeki Uda), who at times seems almost childlike.

Machiko suffers in secret over the loss of her child; Shigeki still mourns the wife he lost long ago. After Shigeki's birthday party, Machiko decides for no apparent reason to take the elderly man for a drive in the country. When her car get stuck in a ditch, the two embark on an exhausting two-day journey into the forest that brings them to what Shigeki says is his wife's grave site. How he knows this is a mystery being that it looks like any other patch of trees, rocks and mountainside. It's not even clear that this truly is her tomb.

Nevertheless, he deposits letters there that he has been writing devotedly to his wife, who departed Earth about 33 years before. In the press notes, the writer-director states that in Japanese Buddhism, the 33rd year is the "post year" after which the departed will never return to this world again. However, nothing really tells the viewer this.

For all the film's concentrated emphasis on minute details of the retirement home and this arduous trek through a mournful forest, key points are remarkably fuzzy. How did that car get into the ditch? One minute the two are driving, and the next the car is stuck with no explanation of what happened.

Another time, the two are climbing near a small stream when suddenly water cascades down the mountainside for several moments. Then Kawase cuts back to the old man and young woman, who are slightly wet. Did the water just miss them? Did it actually hit them? If so, why isn't the old man badly injured? There is no physical connection between the two people and the rushing water.

And so it goes.

Early on, the young woman and old man play hide and seek amid long rows of shrubbery with Shigeki happily eluding Machiko as the two giggle. The film plays a similar kind of game with its audience -- hiding out amid long scenes of nonevents, daring viewers to seek the movie out. Most will weary of the task long before the conclusion.

Kumie/Celluloid Dreams Prods./Visual Arts College Osaka
Screenwriter-director-producer: Naomi Kawase
Executive producer: Hengameh Panahi
Director of photography: Hideyo Nakano
Production designer: Toshihiro Isomi
Music: Masamichi Shigeno
Editors: Yuji Oshige, Tina Baz
Shigeki: Shigeki Uda
Machiko: Machiko Ono
Wakako: Makiko Watanabe
Shigeki's wife: Kanako Masuda
Machiko's husband: Yoichiro Saito
Running time -- 97 minutes
No MPAA rating