of Death has plenty of potential talking points.
First of all, it's got a hard-boiled starring turn by
Shu Qi, who plays a dour cop fixated on a series of
deaths occurring in a mysterious forest. Second, we
get a wounded, emotional performance from Rain Li, whose
acting is usually light, forgettable, or sometimes annoying.
Third, we get yet another attempt from the Pang Brothers
to move away from just telling ghost stories, and the
direction they move here at least seems somewhat new
for them. And lastly, we get Ekin Cheng as a guy who
can talk to plants. Really. Forget all the good and
bad that may come with Forest of Death - it's
got Ekin Cheng as a brainy scientist who becomes the
Dr. Dolittle of botany. Wow. It's like a Hong Kong Cinema
Christmas present in March. Someone pinch me.
Luscious-lipped police detective
Ha Chun-Chi (Shu Qi) has problems. Not only does she
not take advantage of her obvious glamour, but she's
always tense and unhappy, which can't be doing good
things for her should-be flawless complexion. Ha's latest
case involves a rape/murder that took place in a mysterious
forest that's also the location of many creepy suicides.
The main suspect of the rape/murder is Patrick Wong
(Lawrence Chou), who looks like a young TV evangelist
and is as smarmy as your average used car salesman.
He also denies the act, leaving Ha with no options besides
smoke, surf the net for clues, and continue to furrow
her brow, which could lead to premature wrinkles.
maverick botanist Shum Shu-Hoi (Ekin Cheng). Shum has
been experimenting with plants from the mysterious forest
by hooking them up to some old medical equipment and
his outdated hi-fi. Shum's girlfriend, entertainment
reporter May (Rain Li), is also interested in the mysterious
forest, but only as fodder for the gossip television
show she works for. Shum is pissed at May because he
thinks she trivializes the forest, but she doesn't care
because she's a media personality, and it's her job
to trivialize everything. Somehow, all these plotlines
are supposed to intersect.
They do, and here's how: Shum
is able to get a reaction from his plants which implies
that they can actually sense human intent. Ergo, they're
botanical lie detectors, and when Ha gets wind of this,
she thinks she has her ticket to solving the case. She
enlists Shum and his crazy experiments to test a reenactment
of Patrick Wong's alleged crime. Basically, they'll
all head out to the forest, Patrick will talk about
his account of the crime (which involves his innocence,
natch), and Shum will get the plants to talk. Will they
finger Patrick as the bad guy? Or will they stay silent,
making Ha and Shum look like idiots for believing that
plants will talk? And why all the suicides in the forest?
What's with sage park ranger Mr. Tin (Lau Siu-Ming),
who dispenses cryptic advice to anyone who happens to
be in earshot? And is communication with Shum the full
extent of the the plants' powers? What's this about
ghostly figures hanging out in the woods? And can a
workable film be made out of all these ludicrous details?
Forest of Death was
brought to you by those ubiquitous Pang Brothers, though
it's brother Danny Pang who takes directorial reins
here. Pang once gave us the overdone, but sufficiently
amusing Leave Me Alone, which mixed black comedy
with bizarre characters and over-the-top action. Forest
of Death is completely different, and goes for a
super-serious plot mixing procedural investigation with X-Files-type plot twists. The mix is intriguing
because it's something the Pangs haven't really done.
They've done ghosts, delusions, and haunted memories,
but they haven't done pseudo science-fiction supernatural
mumbo-jumbo like this. Those who are tired of the usual
Pang Brothers horror tropes may find something to like
in Forest of Death because hey, at least it's
different. The forest mystery does lend itself to a
certain tension, and though the various plotlines take
a while to get going, their eventual intersection at
the forest reenactment scene brings everything together
That is, until the actual scene
plays out, after which Forest of Death starts
to collapse. First of all, the super-serious tone becomes laughable, with moments of tension becoming inadvertently
funny. The actors begin to either overact (Lawrence
Chou) or underact (Shu Qi and Ekin Cheng), with nobody
really creating compelling characters. Both Shu and
Cheng initially seem to be acting according to the film's
serious tone, but once the plot details get
more out there, their underplaying of every scene starts
to feel laughable.
What we eventually discover is that
neither of their characters is terribly likeable or
interesting; Cheng comes off as blank, while Shu is
so dour that when she pulls her gun for the umpteenth
time, one might end up hoping that she shoots herself
instead of someone else. Rain Li is the bright spot
in that she gets to act emotional and desperate, which
is a far cry from her usual cinematic window dressing.
However, she isn't terribly likeable either, meaning
that actually sympathizing with her distress may prove
difficult. That's a large problem, as the film's final
act largely hinges on concern for her character's safety.
If you get that far and you still don't care, then reaching
the end of Forest of Death could be a chore.
That's ultimately the biggest
problem: it's hard to really care about any of the characters
or their situations. Only one character (Mr. Tin) is
given anything resembling a backstory, and when it eventually
comes out, that backstory is explained only partially,
and the emotional weight it's given doesn't really register.
Danny Pang handles the mysteries in Forest of Death well and amps the tension sufficiently, but since he
can't get us to really care about the characters or
their issues, we may end up simply hoping that the film
ends sooner than it does. Answers to the mysteries are
given but more questions are also raised, and it's hard
to imagine anyone in the audience will be so intrigued
that they'll demand even more.
The film doesn't end particularly well, either. Once the big reveal occurs,
the reaction may be, "Oh, I get it. That's kind
of cool, I guess," if not the dreaded, "What
a cop out!" There's the potential for Forest
of Death to be seen as one of those deux ex machina films, where everything is solved in an easy contrivance,
and because the Pangs can't connect the plot's leaps
to the characters, it may all seem kind of cheap. Forest
of Death is competently-made and has interesting
ideas, and is certainly better than the Pang Brothers'
recent U.S. outing, The Messengers. But it's
still another case of style over substance, which means
for the Pang Brothers, there's ultimately nothing new
here at all. (Kozo 2007)