“Spider Forest” is the latest offering from South Korean writer/director Ilgon-Song, who last gave audiences the award winning surreal feminist road movie “Flower Island”. Like that other movie, “Spider Forest” is a cinematic oddity, a film whose genre is hard to pin down and whose incredibly intricate plot cannot be described in too much detail without giving away some of the movie’s multiple twists. The film is equal parts horror, murder mystery and detective thriller, though it is perhaps best described as being a surrealist, disorientating exploration of memory and grief. In this respect, it most resembles another recent Korean film, “A Tale of Two Sisters”, albeit in a far more adult and even more intellectually demanding form.
“Spider Forest” is certainly a film which requires the viewer’s full concentration, as its narrative landscape is one which constantly shifts and warps, filled with symbolism, flashbacks, dreams and many sequences which may or may not be real. A number of its scenes are very open to interpretation, and even after the end credits have rolled, what the viewer has actually witnessed is ambiguous. Throughout, Song never slips into pretension or outright deception, and the film does have an overall sense of integrity which challenges the viewer to decipher its mysteries rather than merely frustrating with willful obscurity.
The film begins with a beaten, bloodied man named Min (Woo-seong Kam, recently in the Korean horror hit “R-Point”) waking up in a dark, mysterious forest. He wanders through the trees, eventually coming across a cabin, inside which he finds the badly mutilated corpse of a man, and his own girlfriend, who dies in his arms from similar injuries. As he explores the cabin, Min catches sight of the killer, and pursues him into the woods, only to be knocked unconscious.
Upon waking, Min continues his search until he enters a tunnel where he catches sight of his quarry just before he’s hit by a car. Min awakens in the hospital after being in a coma for two weeks, and informs the police of the murders, which seems to have not been discovered yet. Trying to piece back his own memories and work out what happened at the cabin, Min finds himself both suspect and witness in the police investigation, which itself reveals many strange and sinister secrets.
All of this takes place in the first quarter of the film, and the plot is mainly revealed through flashback, though Song muddies the waters by suggesting that some of these may in fact be fictitious or possibly Min’s own interpretations of his memories. Since the film unfolds through Min’s perspective, the viewer quickly comes to share his confusion and unhinged state of mind, forced to try and piece together the past and present from a series of cryptic fragments which are clearly not being presented in chronological order. It probably comes as no great surprise to learn that the film’s ending is inconclusive. Whilst it does offer some sense of closure, it provides no concrete answers, merely a cipher with which to deconstruct that which has just been seen, and as such the viewer still has a great deal of work to do in order to unravel the mystery.
The strange thing about “Spider Forest”, or at least the key to its enjoyment, is the fact that the final denouement itself is not the primary concern. Indeed, the identity of the killer is no great mystery, and it is debatable whether or not the viewer is supposed to be aware who is responsible for the murders from the very beginning. Director Song seems far more concerned with the actual details, and in that he certainly succeeds, as “Spider Forest” is rich with a symbolism and meaning that is visually fascinating and cerebrally stimulating. As a result, the film is achingly beautiful and very atmospheric, especially the scenes inside the forest, which are genuinely creepy as well as being obviously loaded with thematic pointers. The overall feel of the film is one of great sadness, extolling a real sense of grief, and a desperate longing to be remembered after death.
Because Song pays equal attention to his characters, the film does not come across as an empty exercise in technique. Min is a fully fleshed out and well-written person, and the viewer feels a genuine sympathy for his plight, despite only coming to know him gradually as the plot progresses. In many ways, Min acts as a symbol and reflection of the viewer’s own confusion, and as such we identify with him even during the more surreal moments. The film’s other main character, Su-Jin (Jung Suh, unforgettable in Ki-duk Kim’s “The Isle”) is equally fascinating, an enigmatic yet pivotal figure whose constant presence rapidly yet subtly becomes the axis on which the narrative turns.
The downside to all of this ambiguity and mystery is that many viewers may feel frustrated. The plot is undeniably opaque, and Song’s refusal to provide easy answers or even clues to the reliability and truth of the narrative has an equal chance of fascinating or infuriating. The film is also quite slow moving, and probably could have been trimmed down from its two hour running time. There are a few scenes of bloody violence and surprisingly graphic sex (the film actually has a ‘category III’ rating), though these in themselves are probably not enough to make the film enjoyable for the casual viewer.
“Spider Forest” is highly recommended to those who enjoy ornate, intricate puzzles, and are not deterred by films which require a great deal of work. Viewers seeking entertainment of a more obvious and immediate nature are advised to stay away, as without effort, the film is likely to only baffle and exasperate.
Ilgon Song (director) / Ilgon Song (screenplay)
CAST: Woo-seong Kam …. Kang Min
Jung Suh …. Min Su-jin
Kyeong-heon Kang …. Hwang, Su-yeong
Hyeon-seong Jang …. Choi, Seong-hyeon
Byung-ho Son …. Kim Cheol-ju