Machiko (played by Machiko Ono) is a junior nurse working at a care home, but she herself is recovering from the death of her son and the burden of guilt her husband places on her, blaming her solely for their son's death. Under her care is Shigeki (played by débutante Shigeki Uda), an elderly man suffering from dementia and the death of his wife Mako some thirty years past. One day, while practising calligraphy, Shigeki notices that the characters of Machiko's name share characters with that of his dead wife's name and this sets him on a pilgrimage to her grave, unbeknown to Machiko, who is tricked into taking Shigeki on a drive for his birthday, where he escapes into the woods to find his wife's grave leaving Machiko to follow him.
'The Mourning Forest' is a somewhat perplexing film - it's often very subdued, sedentary and even jovial at the outset, but becomes thematically very heavy and much more melancholy as the film progresses, dealing with the grief both characters share and the redemption they seek. As they progress through the forest, their situations become reversed - Machiko, the care giver, has to rely on Shigeki, the cared for, and his insistence that he knows where he is going, but she becomes increasingly perturbed as the situation becomes more perilous and it falls to Shigeki to console her, offering cryptic advice that "running water will not return to it's source" which speaks not only of their immediate predicament, but of their individual personal losses.
I imagine some will have difficulty with this film. It doesn't offer much in way of explanation, many viewers even seem to miss the fact that Machiko is mourning a loss too, it requires a fair amount of patience for any sort of progression or pay-off and features a lot of symbolism and imagery that won't be apparent to non-Japanese viewers or those without an understanding of certain aspects of Japanese culture. For instance, the film's Japanese title translates to 'Mogari Forest', 'mogari' being a term to describe an ancient Japanese funerary ritual of temporary burial, while the number of years since Mako's death (thirty three) mark the time when Buddhists believe the soul of the departed travels to Buddha and the last chance for loved one's to say farewell.
Cinematically speaking, 'The Mourning Forest' features some wonderful cinematography and scenery, long, lingering shots of nature predominate much of the film when not directly following either character. However, when pointed at the characters the camera work often leaves something to be desired - shot in a shaky-cam documentary style, the camera moves far too much when centred on the characters and often switches between observing both characters, or presenting things from either of their perspectives. For a film that seems to seek to disengage itself from the need for exposition, this seems an unnecessary measure and the shaky-cam gives it an unwarranted amateur feel.
Overall I feel that 'The Mourning Forest' is at equal measures a beautiful and frustrating film. While I admire the director's decision to break from the need to explain every detail, this works both against and in the film's favour as at times it helps create a feel of intrigue and tension (especially towards the films latter stages) but it also makes the film somewhat impenetrable. However, for patient viewers who are happy to sit back and revel in the beautiful scenery and sedentary tone until the film gets around to explaining itself, 'The Mourning Forest' is quite a touching and sincere film with good performances from the lead actors and some arresting visuals.