This is not light-hearted slasher fare, nor is it little girls dressed in white with flowing black hair and pale skin. Il-gon Song has scripted a reflective, slowly unravelling mystery, and not one which pertains exclusively to the murders in the story. The tone is that of a psychological thriller wearing supernatural flair, and while an effective sense of unease permeates the movie the substrata reveals an examination of the nature of memory, reality and the merging of both in a dreamscape which could have been conjured by the Brothers Grimm before their stories were sanitized.
He awakens slowly, laying on his back in the middle of a forest. His face is covered with grime, his steps shaky. In a nearby cottage lays the drained corpse of his former employer, and in the next room his half-undressed girlfriend bleeds her life out. He’s in shock, but when a shadowy figure bursts from a hiding place he manages to give chase wielding a scythe. Turned around in the dark he’s laid out from behind, and when he comes to he manages to stagger to a brightly lit tunnel. Frozen in place as his adversary emerges from a utility door he’s hit by a car.
When Kang Min (Woo-seong Kam, who also starred in R-Point) comes to in the hospital he’s had emergency brain surgery and can barely acknowledge his surroundings. The doctor’s seem convinced that he’s destined to become a vegetable until they find him sitting up, staring at his reflection in a window. Spider Forest, he repeats, the police. An old friend and detective, Seong-hyeon Choi (Hyeong-seong Jang) attempts to follow the few details the invalid can muster. That a murder has taken place is beyond question– the police have found the two bodies left to decompose for the two weeks Min was unconscious– but Choi’s superior has already decided for himself that the killer is already in custody. A guilty conscience doesn’t need to be arrested, they come to you..
As Choi attempts to dig up clues Min flees the hospital and returns home to suffer a series of flashbacks: a late night with his wife after he’s had a foreboding dream (which comes true) about her dying in a plane crash; as an alcoholic wreck he begins a frenzied affair with a new coworker, Su-yeong (Kyeong-heon Kang), who now has been murdered; an overworked television producer, Min makes a fateful decision which has him shamed by his boss in front of a room full of co-workers before being told he’ll not return for the next season. In between Min struggles to remember the face of the killer he saw twice in one night, and struggles to remember how he came to find himself in the woods.
Perhaps the mysterious phone calls he receives have something to do with it? On his desk is a roll of undeveloped film, on the phone is a disembodied voice who has obviously been keeping a close eye on Min. Confused and angry, shamed and stressed, Mind attempts to finish one more episode of his TV show, a program which investigates supernatural events. This leads to a run-down photography studio in a small town staffed by the woman, Min Su-jin (Jung Suh) who also lives there. She has a ghost story about the Spider Forest, dead children and things too horrible to comprehend. In the present Min tries to hide his bandages, fights to keep his feet, and retraces the steps as quickly as his memory and health will allow; Choi and his team of detectives are working backwards from the scene of the murders but every indication is that they’re on a collision course.
Any movie which evades chronology can be challenging for the viewer but the multiple threads running every which way, always threatening to hook red herrings, require an alert state of mind. This isn’t to say that things become muddled or carelessly confused, just that you have to actively participate and catalog information as it becomes available. At the same time you’re forced to confront surrealistic fragments of Min’s past and weigh not only what’s important but what is illusory. This movie would work fine as a straight murder mystery with an amnesiac witness but the additional layer of memories and consciousness doesn’t allow for a passive audience. My one gripe in this splendid web is that the relationship between the detective Choi and Min is too diluted. When Choi first takes the case he claims Min is merely an acquaintance and they don’t seem to have any shared history to dispute this assessment. However, the lengths that Choi goes to unearth the real killer and spare Min as a suspect seem extraordinary for someone who’s anything less than a close friend.
Some of the movie, the brighter scenes at least, come off as pretty perfunctory but in the darkness of the woods, in the dimly lit rooms of Min’s past, Song reveals a talent for dressing the set. The late-night talk between Min and his wife feels so isolated, like everything beyond their dimly lit kitchen is just an empty black expanse, which contrasts violently with her sudden, strange pantomiming act of eating an apple. The photography studio is wonderful, especially a back room with one wall crowded by old portraits. Song never goes for the quick kill, the camera takes its time through every scene regardless of it being a chase through the woods or an old man in a hospital bed. The rich, purple and orange hues and soft lighting add to the dream like haze which drifts aimlessly through one scene to the next. Even the most violent images come off more as bad hallucinations than the gritty hand-held camera action of most horror movies. Most startling of all, however, is that there’s actual nudity and two sex scenes– things I assumed did not occur in Korean cinema.
Woo-seong Kam stumbles through his amnesiac’s hell wearing a constant mask of torture and sadness. He conveys a weariness and determination that most of us are fortunate to never experience. It’s never a case of him being a superhero, it’s almost as if he is being dragged forward against his will. Jung Suh is enigmatic, but without condescending to senseless riddles or ducking into cheap plot holes. Her stoicism seems more related to her character than a lack of dialogue, and she carries herself with a sense of grace and wisdom promising that she knows a lot more than she’s letting on. Hyeong-seong Kang is a dedicated cop, as comfortable clubbing crooks as cradling his wounded friend (acquaintance, whatever) but it’s more of a traditional role played by a competent actor; similarly Kyeong-heon Kang struts through her scenes as confident as a self-possessed temptress but never reveals what’s compelling about her to mean anything to Kam– unless her nudity conveys that for her.
The score follows suit with the overall feeling of the film, choosing for sadness and rumination or heebie-jeebies or drama. It comes and goes like a well-reared attendant, enabling the evening to progress seamlessly without calling much attention to itself. The overall sound structure was similarly subdued, and fortunately the movie didn’t require any explosions or spaceships or anything like that.
Spider Forest (Geomi Sup) was released domestically by Tartan Asia Extreme. It’s got the bells and whistles the production company made standard for their releases, a 5.1 mix, anamorphic widescreen, some trailers and behind the scenes whatnots. Good picture, even with all the darkness. It’s widely available if you’d like to check it out. A better review which gets into film theory and symbolism can be found at Korean Film written by Kyu Hyun Kim.