One of the most recent explosions of genre cinema in Asia is the swarm of releases coming from Cambodia, which is mainly due to the exploits of Jimmy Henderson. The Italian-born director has been at the forefront of the Khmer uprising, pushing for the quality of films to come out of the country to rival that of other countries, and much like his other efforts, this new fantasy/horror film carries on that high-quality of work.
Living in an isolated rural village, the residents are shocked when a nude stranger (Lida Duch) appears out of the forest. Shocked at finding an outsider, The Commune Chief (Sisowath Siriwudd) agrees to let her stay while she recuperates, eventually settling with Sokhana (Chhorvy Sem) a local villager, until she can leave. As she begins working around the village with a farmers’ son (Dara Our) in order to be integrated into their society, a series of strange curses and traumatic events begin befalling the group as she continues to live among them, causing the villagers to fret over her true intentions and what she’s really doing in the village.
This one definitely emerges with some enjoyable qualities. The main story is quite intriguing, for it mixes a lot of fine elements into an interesting whole. The combination of fantasy and horror presented through this is quite fascinating. Offering a form of fairy-tale setup with the history of the village and their form of isolation, the initial appearance of the stranger in their lives causes a real stir in the community. The initial manner of how their fortunes change, from the seemingly positive, like the influx of rain following a drought, to the more malicious including adultery and even death, slowly starts to weave through the film. These early scenes slowly turn into the more destructive side, with the torrential rainstorms and the overall treatment afforded to the others, which ranges from having their fingers bitten off or finding their food tainted, leading to the fantastic scene of the whole village succumbing to the poisoning. That the fantasy elements lead into the horror here gives this a strong punch overall.
Likewise, there’s a lot to like with the film’s technical qualities. Director Henderson also was his own cinematographer here to capture a series of strikingly beautiful shots. The sweeping panorama scenes of the forest where they live are vast and majestic, which is a real enhancement to the film’s overall look. There’s a beauty to the rain-forest presented that adds immensely to the quality of the film with a strong production style. Even affording the momentary inserts of animals flapping in the background or the briefer moments showing the tranquility of the village, the cinematography creates a nice series of setups that are impressive. Even the low-key manner of the film’s deliberate pacing and fine professional sheen gives this a fine appeal, making ‘The Forest Whispers’ look far more grandiose and impressive than it really should.
The acting is another fine point. Lead Lida Duch is quite impressive billed only as The Stranger. A mute with no dialog, her smoldering looks and outsider nature immediately puts her at odds with the more unkempt locals around her. The audience is never really sure what she is and her point there ,as the events really do seem like accidents and coincidences, which goes against their superstitious nature, which only adds to her character. The one local who sides with her, being named only as Farmer Son and played by Dara Our, does fine but really can’t compare to Lida. His quiet and humble nature makes him seem far more reserved against the rest of the villagers and it leaves him rather underwhelming. The fact that he’s a somewhat maligned and continually set up around the village to be the one everyone feels is the responsible party, despite his innocence, doesn’t help him. The frustration he feels is a part of the matter. The rest of the villagers, despite not being named, are quite effective in their roles and really have a lived-in feeling within the rain-forest around them.
While it has a lot to really like, there are a few minor flaws here. The main piece to hold it back is the overall ambiguity that affects the main girl. Trying to keep this setup over if she’s a blessing or a curse upon them, means the actual threats against the village are kept to a realistic level. From famine and damaged crops to torrential, non-ending rainstorms that befall them, none of these are really that determining of her supernatural origins. It’s hard to really tell if The Stranger is responsible, because none of them are really that telling as being supernatural in origin and very easily could be normal situations or coincidences. That leads into not containing that strong a horror outline as it’s quite hard to believe that this is a damaging figure among them. As well, some of the performances are a touch overdone and cartoonish which don’t mesh well with the realistic setup, but overall it’s not that damaging.
Although the few flaws are somewhat damaging, the film has quite a lot to raise it up quite nicely. “The Forest Whispers” is rather recommended for those looking to expand their Asian fantasy or horror cinema from the usual confines.