Why Natalie Dormer's MTV-Produced Horror Movie 'The Forest' Is Being Accused of Whitewashing

The movie sensationalizes a real, continuing problem in Japan, and tells the story with a team of white leads and writers.

'The Forest' Facebook Page

You may have seen the preview for the uncanny horror-thriller starring Game of Thrones star Natalie Dormer before one of the action-adventure flicks you’ve seen in theaters recently. The promotional hashtag is #suicideforest, because it is a fantasy version of a real place — Aokigahara — a woodland area near Mount Fuji in Japan. Most years, over 100 bodies are found there; it’s one of the world’s major suicide destinations.

The Forest — a film by director Jason Zada, who is taking his first legitimate dive into cinematic directing after a successful career in advertising and short film, and co-written by Dark City screenwriter David S. Goyer — has come under fire for sensationalizing a place that is still a place of so much human suffering. Until many horror films, the awful legacy of the forest is a self-perpetuating issue, not an urban legend. Admittedly, “based on a true story” horror is a pillar of the industry, but there are many who find The Forest’s seeming romanticization of the Aokigahara phenomenon insensitive, the kind of thing to elicit morbid, insensitive curiosity.

Monica Chang of The Odyssey writes:

“Instead of approaching the story in a way that could be seen as a sort of respectful memorial for those that have committed suicide there (in reality), or educating people about suicide, it was made into a horror movie, to scare and entertain people. Suicide is extremely important, and many people need to be more educated about it. It is an issue that is significant all over the world and should not be taken as a joke or as a form of entertainment (by making one of the places with highest suicide rates into a horror movie).”

Perhaps this questionable decision of actual subject matter might have been more widely overlooked, had its casting choices been different. The central characters in the film are traditional stars — a picture-perfect white man (Zero Dark Thirty’s Taylor Kinney) and woman (Dormer). It really is a shame that Zada didn’t (consider?) casting Japanese actors and actresses in a movie that touches on such a historically solidified sore spot.

Joanna Sing of Gal Dem writes:

“If Zada had gone ahead with this movie as he has, but cast east Asian actors and actresses in the lead roles, I would have been substantially less bothered by the existence of this film. I would still seriously question how appropriate the setting is given the context, but I would have been happy to see east Asian actors and actresses play lead roles with interesting characters and complex emotions.”

It’s been common for Hollywood remakes of Japanese horror films (see, for instance, The Grudge and The Host) to integrate white leads — big, box-office-draw stars. But often these films are actually made by, or at least with the consultation of the director, and usually the subject matter isn’t so intimately tied up with a sensitive national issue.

But Zada’s film is not a remake, and the writers, directors, and producer — by in large — are not Japanese. It’s true that Dormer’s star is rising thanks to turns in Game of Thrones and The Hunger Games, but there are many Asian stars who are at similar points in their career that could been just comparably compelling choices in terms of star power. Her presence does not guarantee box office success; in fact, it would be surprising if The Forest did anything but pretty modestly. The respect that the film has lost by its choice to present its story in this way doesn’t even outweigh the commercial benefits by the cold, hard numbers.

Therefore, The Forest’s conceptualization remains hard to understand, outside of viewing it as a symptom of being the product of a historically racist and at least perennially clueless Hollywood system. Whether the MTV-produced movie will distinguish itself as an exciting film from a strictly cinematic perspective remains to be seen. In any case, look for the film in theaters everywhere next Friday.

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