Review first published by Film4
Synopsis: Song Il-Gon weaves an inescapable trap for characters and viewers alike in this melancholic Korean mystery.
Review: A scene in the middle of Spider Forest (Geomi sup) shows Kang Min (Kam Woo-sung), producer of television’s ‘Mystery Theatre’, frantically editing ‘on the fly’ the second half of an episode even as the first half is going to air.
This may (or may not) be a real event from Min’s life, but it certainly reflects one of the film’s central concerns. One way or another, Min is always racing against the clock to piece together his record of the past, even if the rushed results are inevitably something of a jumbled mystery. When we first encounter Min, he has just woken on the floor of a forest. In a nearby cabin, he discovers the male and female victims of a bloody sickle attack. As he pursues the shadowy perpetrator out into the night, Min receives a vicious blow to the skull and then, as he staggers into a tunnel, is hit head-on by a passing car.
Two weeks later he wakes delirious in a hospital, a prime suspect in the double murder, his head still bandaged from the emergency brain surgery that saved him from death. Assisted by his policeman friend Choi Seong-Hyeon (Jang Hyun-sung), Min struggles to remember his connection to the murdered woman (Kang Hyeong-weon), to another woman (Suh Jung) whose smiling face was on a photograph found in his pocket, and to the isolated forest itself.
Confused and slowly dying, he will go back once again to Spider Forest and to the nearby photo studio where a softly-spoken woman (also played by Suh) had recently helped him. With his condition rapidly deteriorating, this may just be Min’s last chance to find some answers, and perhaps even redemption – if only he can remember the past and face the truth.
Expect Spider Forest to be a conventional horror or crime thriller, and you are bound to be disappointed. Expect it to be a mystery with a killer twist to tie everything up in the end, and again, frustration is likely to follow. For Song Il-Gon’s film is an altogether more nuanced work – a haunting and melancholic exploration of identity, memory and loss that leaves the viewer feeling as disoriented and entrapped as the protagonist himself.
In this elegantly shot, hermetically constructed web of plot and subplot, reality and dream, flashback and fantasy, present and past, natural and supernatural, every image and every line of dialogue carries a weight beyond its immediate context, ensuring that this is a film whose deep-seated ambiguities will have viewers struggling to see the wood for the trees.
It is not that it fails to make sense – on the contrary, it makes perfect sense, in such a way that many will congratulate themselves on seeing the ending coming, only to realise on subsequent viewings that it may not after all have been quite like what they had first so confidently imagined. For the story of Spider Forest radically differs each time that you watch it – and like Min, you will keep feeling compelled to go back.
So, take the Freudian symmetries of Alfred Hitchcock’s Vertigo (1958), the modernist labyrinths of Alain Resnais’s Last Year In Marienbad (1961), the psychogenic fugues of David Lynch’s Lost Highway (1997) and the ghostly doppelgangers of Kim Jee-Woon’s A Tale Of Two Sisters (2003), and you might just end up with something like Spider Forest, a film that is in certain respects like all of these, and yet ends up blazing its own circuitous, branch-strewn trail through the viewer’s dark consciousness.
In a Nutshell: Whether it is a psychodrama or a ghost story, Song Il-Gon’s heady blend of mixed-up memory, desperate loss and overwhelming guilt will have viewers returning to its primal scene again and again in search of answers. A vastly underrated and beautifully disconsolate film for devotees of Hitchcock, Resnais and Lynch.
© Anton Bitel