If nothing else, Forest of Death proves it’s possible to make a supernatural thriller that isn’t particularly scary, but remains compellingly odd. Following their jointly-directed triumph Re-cycle (2006), the Pang brothers went their separate ways this year. Oxide Pang produced the dark, psychological thriller Diary, while sibling Danny Pang takes the helm for this idiosyncratic hybrid. A character driven horror, police procedural, ecological, sci-fi drama. Told you it was odd.
The film opens with a young girl driven to slash her wrists amidst the eerie, mist-drenched greenery. Local rumour has it the mysterious forest induces suicides and shock deaths, the next being a police inspector who succumbs to a heart attack while investigating a crime scene. Detective Ha (Shu Qi) takes up the case, pursuing an arrogant triad rapist. In a radical move, she teams up with maverick botanist Steven (Ekin Cheng), who believes the living forest thrives upon, records and stores human pain and suffering. Steven has invented a machine enabling him to talk to the trees (Shades of Clint Eastwood in Paint Your Wagon!), while Mary (Rain Li), his nosy, tabloid TV reporter girlfriend angles for a scoop.
In the movie’s most effective scene, Detective Ha and Steven use the forest’s powers to goad a confession out of the despicable rapist, while the trees traumatise the assembled reporters with images of his victim’s pain. Even though the case is solved, bodies continue piling up, and Ha discovers some have been missing for decades with their corpses neither decomposed nor aged. Meanwhile Mary, tortured by professional failure and a nagging suspicion that Ha and Steven are having an affair, is lured into the forest.
Forest of Death is a weird, weird, little movie, but the tone is so earnest and the performances so full of conviction you hardly notice till it’s over. Shu Qi is low-key and deglamorized (Not too successfully - she’s a little too gorgeous for a hard-bitten detective), but not as strong as she was in the Pang’s The Eye 2 (2003). The real revelation is Ekin Cheng. A bland leading man throughout the late 1990s, his recent performances have improve with each new film. Cheng’s dogged sincerity and subtle conviction merge with hypnotic shots of swaying trees to make the ridiculous remarkably convincing. That the police accept Steven’s crackpot theories about the supernatural so casually, mark this out as a Hong Kong movie. The hazy, emerald forest oozes atmosphere, but the climactic lurch into sci-fi territory doesn’t gel with the rest of the movie.
Even an accomplished actress like Rain Li can do little to make shallow, self-involved Mary appealing and the film is often ponderous and awkwardly paced. Yet beneath these flaws lies a theme of coping with loss and pain. Part art house drama, part supernatural schlock, Forest of Death shouldn’t be dismissed entirely and remains curiously involving.