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The Forest: Turning Cultural Insensitivity into an Artform

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I think most people know of The Forest for the same reasons I did. It stars Natalie Dormer of Game of Thrones fame, and it sparked controversy because of its use of Aokigahara Forest, a real place near Mount Fuji in Japan where many people commit suicide every year.

As a non-horror movie watcher anyway, it wasn’t even vaguely on my “to watch” radar. But then it showed up on Netflix, and my friend and I couldn’t decide on what to watch on a lazy Sunday afternoon, and Natalie Dormer was there, and, well. You know. I’ll probably watch less than ten movies this year, and now The Forest is one of them.

Here’s the thing: The Forest is horrifically insensitive. Despite the troubling set-up, there are ways that it could have been at least arguably interesting. If it had been a purely psychological thriller, instead of a supernatural one, with well-developed characters, cultural understanding, and a sensitive approach to suicide, this might have been a decent movie. But by making the threat supernatural, The Forest managed to invoke “Japan is creepy and magical” tropes while also exploiting suicides and throwing aside any psychological insight or message for cheap and lazy scares.

The story is that American Sara has come to Japan in search of her missing twin sister, Jess. Jess has been suicidal before, and after a school trip to Aokigahara Forest, she has disappeared. Sara is determined to find her.

Despite Sara’s apparently admirable determination to help her sister, the actual story here is one of a white foreigner who dies because of her cultural insensitivity and her refusal to believe that the people who actually live in an area might know what they’re talking about. That kid is just crazy superstitious. And that woman. And the person who works in the park. And that other person who works in the park. And the people saying don’t leave the path. And the people saying don’t stay in the forest overnight. And, and, and. It’s an ever-escalating story of ‘are you serious, Sara??’ And perhaps there’s something in there, just as there might have been something in Sara’s relationship to Jess, and the subtle implication (or completely accidental message) that Jess doesn’t exist, and this is all a psychological thriller about her a girl who disassociated from her experiences after a traumatic event. You know, something at least a little bit interesting. Hints of potential. You get the feeling that maybe a Japanese movie with a psychological bent may have done something worthwhile here.

But the insensitivity on both a cultural and mental health level is off the charts. There is, of course, the innate insensitivity of taking a place where many, many people have died, and still die, and using it as a setting for a supernatural horror movie. The movie uses suicide as a jumpscare multiple times, and although hanging bodies is staple in horror movies, they carry a slightly different tone when they’re connected to real people who really died recently. This problem is exacerbated by the fact that, when Sara Googles the forest, the movie uses real photographs of the bodies of victims. Real deaths, real pain, to set the scene for cheap horror. That’s the kind of IMDB “fun fact” that would ruin even an otherwise pretty decent movie.

Then, of course, there’s the suggestion that people in the forest only kill themselves because evil spirits trick them into it. Could you have a decent movie where suicidal thoughts are metaphorically represented by dark spirits haunting a person? Sure. But this is not that movie. We’re told, from the very beginning, that the forest wants to kill people. It grabs onto sad people and lures them to death. It’s even strongly suggested that Jess was lured into the forest by the spirits, rather than her actually intending to be suicidal, despite her apparent past. The movie ends with Sara killing herself accidentally, because the ghosts play tricks on her mind and make her think she’s fighting off a demon, when she’s really just cutting herself.

The basic premise of The Forest is pretty unsalvageable, on a sensitivity level, but there are ways it could have been better. If they pushed the psychological angle, if they had explored the effect that Sara’s traumatic childhood experiences had on her more explicitly, if, if if. If the Japanese characters had more than bit parts. If it was a Japanese movie. If it was set somewhere fictional, for god’s sake. If it didn’t treat Japan as a foreign land of magic and creepiness.

If you’re going to tell a story about a difficult subject, do it right. Try to approach it from a place of sensitivity and understanding. The Forest is cultural appropriation and insensitivity of the worst kind, because it does it lazily, callously, throwing a bunch of elements together without the slightest nod towards the idea that any of it has any connection to real life. It’s not that The Forest tried to tell a sensitive story and messed up. It’s that The Forest didn’t care, and never cared.

I knew we should have watched Spiceworlinstead.

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Jess from Gilmore Girls is the Worst

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It’s true. When I watched Gilmore Girls as a teenager, I loved Jess. I just wanted him and Rory to live happily ever after. I guess he was cute, and he read a lot, and he could talk really passionately about books, and that was all I needed. Even when watching the Netflix revival, my inner teen squeed when Jess finally appeared on screen.

But I’ve just finished rewatching Season Three for the first time in years and years, and it’s official. Jess is the worst. Like, the actual, literal worst. What was teen!me thinking? How does he have such an important place in so many viewers’ hearts?

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The Bear and the Nightingale by Katherine Arden

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The Bear and the Nightgale is a medieval Russian fairy tale-esque novel by debut author Katherine Arden.

And it’s beautiful.

That’s pretty much the whole review I want to give this book. It’s beautiful. It’s an experience. You should absolutely read it.

The closest comparison I can think of is Uprooted by Naomi Novak, for the same dark fairy tale feel. The Bear and the Nightingale is something of a slow burn book, about a family living in Northern Russia, and particularly about their youngest daughter, Vasya, who loves to run wild in the forest and sees the creatures of folklore all around her.

The novel juxtaposes Vasya and her stepmother, Anna, two young women who have the sight. Vasya embraces the creatures as protectors of the land and her friends, while Anna sees them as demons, and throws herself into religion to try and escape them. Then a young charismatic priest, Konstantin, comes to the village, and decides that he’s been called by God to rid these people of their old-religion superstitions and fill them with fear of God’s wrath. He reviles Anna, who wants nothing more than to be his disciple, and is obsessed with Vasya, who he increasingly sees as a witch. When Konstantin’s fear allows a dark force to awaken in the forest, Vasya must fight to protect the magic that protects them all.

The Bear and the Nightingale is a book of wild forests, dark creatures, unsettling promises, and complex characters. It’s a story of magic, of wonder, of fear, and of not fitting in, beautifully imagined and enchantingly told. I really recommend it.

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Rogue One’s Moral Ambiguity

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The Star Wars universe has a slight problem with moral complexity. Although it does occasionally hint at stances beyond Good Is Good and Evil Is Bad, like when Lando Calrissian sells out Han and Leia, it mostly makes very clear who is supposed to be a hero, and who is supposed to be a villain.

But the more the Star Wars universe grows, the trickier this stance becomes. When Finn turns against the Empire, he raises questions about the idea that Stormtroopers are mindlessly evil. They’re still treated as generic villains, but once Finn changes sides, we have to wonder about the morality of mass killing brainwashed Stormtroopers who have little choice about what they’re doing. The more detailed the world gets, the more we have to question this idea that the rebels are always the good guys, and anyone mixed up with the Empire is always a villain.

Rogue One is the first movie to really embrace that problem. Again, as general groups, the Empire is Bad and the Alliance is Good, but inside those clearly defined sides, the movie explores the massive grey area of how individuals act, and to what extent the ends justify the means. And it’s the very existence of this grey area that allows the story to explore certain narrative risks and consequences that the main Star Wars movies would be unlikely to touch.

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Never Alone

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Never Alone is a puzzle-plaformer game, based on folklore from the Inupiaq people of Alaska. The game was made as a partnership between Upper One games, the first indigenous-owned video game developer in the US, and the Cook Inlet Tribal Council, and is specifically designed to not only be a compelling game, but also to shaure Inupiaq stories and culture with players around the globe.

First of all, this is an absolutely beautiful game. The animation and art style are stunning. I would recommend it for that alone. But as you progress in the story, you also unlock cultural insight videos, short clips that explain, through interviews and the like, elements of the culture seen in the story. Get a weapon in the game? Here, it’ll tell you, if you’re interested, what the weapon actually is. Meet strange underground-dwelling people? Here are the legends about them. There are short introductions to the Inupiaq belief systems, to some of their cultural objects, to their community, their hunting styles and storytelling traditions and legends about the Northern Lights.

The game itself is about three hours long. You control both a girl, Nuna, and a fox, as they seek the source of a never-ending blizzard that has been plaguing Nuna’s village. You can play the game as a local co-op, with one person controlling Nuna and one controlling the fox, and honestly, I think that’s a much better experience. Although it’s possible to play the game as one player, as I did, some of the puzzles aren’t well-optimised for it. Some of the later challenges require switching back and forth between Nuna and the fox under time pressure, and I found myself dying many, many times because of how difficult it was to coordinate both movements by myself. The AI was also occasionally frustratingly inadequate. There’s nothing quite like controlling one character and having the other fall idiotically off a platform instead of standing still, or having them move away from where you’ve placed them, causing the platform the other character was using to disappear. Some of the puzzles also get a little repetitive by the end, but that might have been because of how frustrated I was getting with all these deaths — especially as you see the surviving character mourn the dying one every single time, and seeing that heartbroken fox broke my heart too.

So if you’re a gameplay first kind of person, I wouldn’t recommend this one. But if you’re willing to overlook some flaws in service of an overall story experience, then Never Alone is fantastic, with a lot to teach you, a great story, and absolutely beautiful graphics (and, of course, the fox is adorable).

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Under Rose-Tainted Skies by Louise Gornall

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I’ve finally found it. A book about mental illness that doesn’t a) romanticise mental illness, b) ignore actual ways of treating mental illness like therapy and medication, or c) have the character overcome her mental illness because of the healing power of love.

Norah suffers from a myriad of mental illnesses, including agoraphobia and OCD, and has barely left her house in years. But when her mom has to go away for the weekend for work, and the Helping Hands guy leaves all Norah’s groceries on the porch, out of reach, she’s helped, embarrassingly enough, by her new neighbor, Josh. And then Josh keeps coming back to chat.

There’s so much to love about this book. First of all, its portrayal of anxiety. Under Rose-Tainted Skies is an “own voices” novel, with author Louise Gornall putting a lot of her own experiences into the novel, and it really shows. The racing, escalating thoughts. The oh-so-convincing irrationality of it. It’s so convincing and realistic and makes Norah incredibly sympathetic. It’s so convincing, in fact, that I would warn readers with anxiety to be cautious while reading, as it pulls you into Norah’s anxiety attacks with her.

Under Rose-Tainted Skies is a romance, but the relationship is also great. Josh is sympathetic and understanding, but he still makes mistakes. And although Norah likes him a lot, but that isn’t enough to inspire her to “get over” her problems.

Ultimately, this is a story of baby steps. It’s a story of getting better, but a reasonable amount for the course of the book, and one that’s grounded in Norah, not Josh.

Spoilers (highlight to read): by the end of the book, Norah is able to start taking SSRIs (something that isn’t inspired by Josh), and hold his hand (as long as she’s sure he’s washed it first). But she still needs to repeat the last step of the stairs to make sure she descends an even number of times, and they finish the book taking a field trip to her therapist, not to the park. She’s at the beginning of recovery, improving, but with a long road ahead.

I really, really recommend this one. If you’re looking for a good representation of mental illness in YA, this is the book to try.

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Rogue One and the Token Protagonist

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First, let’s get this out of the way: I thought Rogue One was a great movie. Well-paced, thrilling, with a story that I think we need right now. I definitely recommend it, if for some reason you haven’t seen it already.

But this blog isn’t just about whether movies are enjoyable, and Rogue One failed on one major issue. Women, apparently, are shockingly rare in a galaxy far, far away.

It feels like it should be impossible. The protagonist, Jyn Erso, is female. People have been complaining about this avalanche of female Star Wars protagonists and the sexism against men included therein for months. Another female protagonist? What, is every person in space a woman now?

But Rogue One suffers from token girl-ism, with the twist that that token girl happens to be the protagonist. I think the film passes the Bechdel test, as I think Jyn talks to both her mother and Mon Mothma, which is an improvement. There are a few women around, at least. But beyond Jyn, they’re all required women. Her mother has to be a woman, and she quickly dies anyway. Mon Mothma is one of the few women in existing canon, so she has to stay, and have a small, if powerful, role. But there’s pretty much no-one else with an even vaguely significant speaking role. Could we have had a female leader of the Death Star project as the main villain, maybe? A female rebel who raised Jyn? A female blind monk, a female pilot, a female other pilot, a female-voiced droid? I left Jyn’s father off this list initially, because I thought perhaps Galen Erso was part of existing canon, but it looks like that’s not the case, so even he could have just as easily been a female character instead. The crew of Rogue One was wonderfully diverse in terms of race, but Jyn was one woman in a crew of six, with very, very few other women scattered across the landscape.

I’m sure people will argue that gender had no effect on the story, whether the characters were male or female, so we shouldn’t force diversity on them. After all, it didn’t really matter whether the defecting Imperial pilot or the Krennic the Death Star planner were men or women. But that’s kind of the point. It didn’t matter. There was no plot or world building reason why they should be men, but they fell to that as the default, even though the result is a world that really needs to worry about its minuscule female population.

It’s pretty frustrating, especially since the movie seemed seriously committed to improving the franchise’s racial diversity. Although I doubt the film’s creators meant it to be political, since they’ve been working on it for years, it feels incredibly political and relevant in the current climate, and that powerful message is slightly undercut by this idea that very few women can be in the revolution. Maybe, instead of simply moving the team’s token woman into the lead role, we could get rid of the concept altogether and have some gender balance instead? It’s not that hard to have women in space, is it? Unless, of course, they were all strangled by their non-expanding bras.

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Moana

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Moana is a difficult movie for me to review. The music is amazing. The animation is stunning. I am beyond in love with this film. But, and I hate to say this, at times, I was also kind of bored while watching it.

Really, I think my feelings on Moana comes down to one question: are people singing? If they are, then I think is one of the most beautiful, heartfelt, engaging, wonderful movies. But if people aren’t singing… ehhh.

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Why I Got Bored of Westworld

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I’ve actually been sitting on this blog post for a while. Originally, it was a discussion of why I was finding it hard to engage with Westworld longterm, but I wanted to watch the latest episode and tweak things to match before sharing it with the world. Well, the rest of Westworld’s first season later, I haven’t been able to motivate myself to catch up. Even putting “WATCH WESTWORLD” on my to-do list didn’t work. So now, this is more of a “why I quit Westworld” post.

Westworld deliberately challenges the idea of relating to and rooting for fictional characters, and although that’s philosophically interesting, it doesn’t make for the most engaging television. At least, not if you’re a viewer who watches precisely for that character connection.

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A Thousand Nights by E.K. Johnston

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I have to admit, I was wary of this book. The cover is so stunning that I picked it up almost every time I saw it in a bookstore, but the cover on The Wrath and the Dawn was gorgeous too, and that retelling of Arabian Nights made me more furious than enchanted. Could a retelling of this story exist in YA without romanticising or glossing over the fact that the king murders hundreds of girls? Several people told me yes. You guys recommended it to me again and again, and I finally got my hands on a copy last week. And then read it almost all in one go.

A Thousand Nights is a beautiful book. It more than lives up the beauty of its cover. In this retelling of Arabian Nights, Lo-Melkiin has had three hundred wives, and three hundreds wives have died. Laws now state that he must take one wife from every village before he is allowed to return to any one place to choose a second. So when he comes to the village of our story’s protagonist, she makes sure that she wins his attention, in order to save her sister. She expects to die immediately. But night after night, she continues to survive.

This is an absolutely lush novel about the hidden, often unseen power of women. I’m not sure how much I can say without being too spoilery, but a great deal of the plot draws on this idea that woman have a great deal of overlooked power, and that they have power, in part because they’re overlooked. The plot hinges on information gathered while quietly sewing in the corner, on news women spread to one another, on the power of having your facial expressions concealed by a veil. It’s about the songs and stories that the women tell, the protections they grant one another, and the worship that they perform. It’s a story of quiet power, subtle power, in contrast to the foot-stomping masculine strength of Lo-Melkiin and the demon that possesses him and drives him to kill all his wives.

It’s only as I come to write this, by the way, that I’m realising a key detail about the book. It’s written in first person, so I got completely pulled into the protagonist’s perspective, and never realised that we don’t actually learn her name. We don’t learn her sister’s name, or her mother’s name, or her sister’s mother’s name. We don’t learn the name of the king’s mother, or the protagonist’s henna artist. In fact, the only names we learn are Lo-Melkiin’s and the people that he names himself. Everyone else is described in terms of role. This echoes traditions of storytelling, the idea of mixing a forceful character with generalised anonymity, so well that that I didn’t even notice, but it also reflects this idea of unseen power, of the things that Lo-Melkiin  doesn’t notice being the things that will bring him down. The common people in general, yes, but particularly the women, common and uncommon, who he never focusses on long enough to see the risk they may pose.

Thank god, this book isn’t a romance. The relationships at the heart of this book are all women, and how they support each other. Two sisters who adore each other and are willing to sacrifice themselves and their dreams for one another. The women in the palace who help the protagonist — the henna artist, the servants, the spinners — and are willing to risk themselves to protect her because they can sympathise with her and her position. And the stories that the protagonist herself spins about her sister, and the strange power they seem to hold.

This is a quiet book, although an addictively readable one, at least until the conclusion. When things get a bit more action-packed towards the end, I have to admit my interest wavered a little, as the slightly distant myth-spinning storytelling style that worked so well elsewhere drained some of the immediacy and the tension of the action. But overall, A Thousand Nights is an amazing book, with lush prose, enthralling world-building, and a strong feminist bent. If you’re going to pick up a retelling of Arabian Nights, pick this one.

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