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Forest of Death

(left) Shu Qi, and (right) Ekin Cheng enter the Forest of Death.
Chinese: 森冤  
Year: 2007  
Director: Danny Pang Fat  
Producer: Oxide Pang Chun, Danny Pang Fat, Alvin Lam, Cheung Hong-Tat
Writer: Danny Pang Fat, Cub Chien
Cast: Shu Qi, Ekin Cheng Yee-Kin, Rain Li Choi-Wah, Lau Siu-Ming, Lam Suet, Tommy Yuen Man-On, Lawrence Chou Chun-Wai
The Skinny: Forest of Death is a decent attempt at a serious supernatural tale, but the lack of compelling characters and situations hurts matters, and director Danny Pang never summons the substance to match his style. Still, it's better than The Messengers.
by Kozo:

Forest 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.

Enter 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has been experimenting with plants from the mysterious forest by hooking them up to some old medical equipment and his outdated hi-fi.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 effectively.

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)

Availability: DVD (Hong Kong)
Region 0 NTSC
Universe Entertainment
16x9 Anamorphic Widescreen
Cantonese and Mandarin Language Tracks
Dolby Digital 5.1
Removable English and Chinese Subtitles
Various special features

images courtesy of Copyright 2002-2017 Ross Chen