AKA: Naisu no mori: The First Contact
Review By: David Austin
Funky Forest positively defies a critic’s abilities to analyze, categorize, or pigeonhole, leaving nothing to do but describe. It is such a grab-bag, and the humor is so random and arcane, that there are just naturally going to be a certain percentage of people on the correct wavelength who love every minute of it, and a certain percentage of people that should never ever watch it in a million years. I absolutely loved it, and so did the crowd at the Festival.
After his amusing but derivative yakuza spoof, Shark Skin Man and Peach Hip Girl, Katsuhito Ishii struck gold with A Taste of Tea, a sweet and funny look at an eccentric family which deservedly won the audience prize at the 2005 NYAFF (and, sadly and inexplicably, has still not been distributed in the US ). Tea was a family comedy/drama that indulged in all manner of weirdness, but fundamentally hung together as a coherent story. Ishii must have been feeling a little restrained because this time he decided to let it all hang out. The result is Funky Forest, a completely bizarre mélange of sketch comedy, non-sequitur humor, and freak-out special effects. And dancing, lots and lots of dancing. Needless to say, strange dancing.
The sketches are spread pretty wide, and often connect only tenuously, but certain characters and themes recur (watching Funky Forest is a little like flipping between 5-6 channels at 3 in the morning). There is a framing device, featuring the worst comedy duo ever, all dressed in white like sperm at a formal dance. There are also three brothers who are very unpopular with women. Tadanobu Asano (stretching credibility by asking us to imagine a world in which he is not popular with women) plays Guitar Brother, an amalgam of every loser you ever met who writes sensitive songs for his acoustic guitar. Susumu Terajima (who is actually required by law to appear in every good Japanese movie) plays his even lamer brother, who mimics Noh masks in his spare time. The other brother? A white kid who loves Snickers.
We also spend time with sorta couple Notti and Takefumi, lounging around, playing music and dreaming; feisty little Hataru; and the Babbling Hot Springs Vixens, who tell the most pointless stories in a Rakugo-flavored Japanese so funny that even non-speakers should be able to appreciate the rhythm and flow of it. There are also scenes set in the strangest high school since Cromartie High, the fabled Singles Picnic, and some Bill Plympton-influenced animation. There is an “explanation” of sorts at the end, but the movie is not enhanced by its inclusion any more than it would have been diminished by its absence – like rational thought, it is totally beside the point.
I could tell you more, but it would serve no real purpose and only spoil the surprises. By this point, you probably already have a good idea whether this is your cup of tea. All I can add is that Ishii and his associates clearly put a lot of love into this one, and the fun they must have had filming beams off the screen and directly into your brain. Funky Forest is not sloppy – it was shot with great skill, and no mean production values. Some of the special effects are clearly inspired by The Naked Lunch – latex creatures and anuses abound during parts of the film but, unlike Lunch, in a goofily, cheerfully obscene manner.
Recommended? Absolutely, but with the caveat that this film is aimed at a very self-selecting audience. Some will find the two and half hour run time to be torture, but for others it will end far too soon. If you’re still not sure what side of the line you fall on but are intrigued, give it a try. You may be surprised. Next to Linda Linda Linda, this was my favorite new film at the festival.
If you like this, you might like: A Taste of Tea, Survive Style 5+, Gozu, And Now for Something Completely Different, Daisies, the collected works of Michel Gondry.
© David Austin
Filed under: Movie Reviews and Movie Reviews: Japan and Contributors: David and Rating: Great ★★★★ and People: Tadanobu Asano and Film Festivals: New York Asian Film Festival 2006 and Movies: Funky Forest - The First Contact (2005)