Song Ilgon, “Spider Forest” (2004)
Amusing if eccentric film that straddles a grey zone between art-house drama and psychological horror thriller, “Spider Forest” carries themes about the role of memory and memory networks in forming people’s identities and how the mind under amnesia tries to reconstruct identity and reality. It starts innocently enough looking like a psych horror / slasher flick in which a lone everyday man, Kang Min (Kam Woosung), by occupation a TV producer who makes a mystery show series, finds himself in a remote forest and sees a cabin some distance away. Walking and entering the cabin, Kang is horrified to discover the body of a man brutally and frenziedly hacked to death in one room and a dying woman in another part of the building. He recognises the woman as a friend, Suyoung, as she dies in his arms. Kang is then chased back into the forest by a shadowy intruder who beats him around the head with a bat. Dazed, Kang later stumbles into a traffic tunnel where he is hit by a car. The last thing he sees is a blurry image of someone looking down at him before he lapses into a coma.
When he wakes up again, Kang is in hospital. He requests that police investigate two murders in the forest, known as Spider Forest. Detective Choi (Jang Hyunsung) comes to see him in the hospital and Kang tells him what he knows. The police conduct a search of the cabin and identify the two dead people as persons Kang knows: the man is his ex-boss (Choi Sungha) at the TV station and the woman, Suyoung (Kang Kyunghun), is his co-worker with whom Kang had been having a romance.
From this point on, Kang, urged on by Choi, tries to remember the events leading up to his discovery of the bodies in the cabin in Spider Forest. People who Kang remembers from the past – his wife, for example, who died in a plane crash – intrude into his attempts to remember and retrace what happened that might lead Choi and the other police to the killer. Along the way Kang meets Sujin (Suh Jung), an enigmatic photography shop assistant, who may be an imaginary construct in his mind as it struggles to restore hiis “reality”.
The structure of the plot, moving from present to bits and pieces of the past that run in parallel and back, bouncing from one time period to another, revisitng various memories, mirrors the way Kang’s fractured mind works to restore his memories and sense of self. How much that is restored reflects actual reality and how much is or should be linked to the Spider Forest murders is the puzzle for viewers to consider. There’s the possibility that Kang’s mind is working to prevent him from feeling any guilt or responsibility for what happened in the cabin or to deny what part he might have played. Scenes in which Kang edits his TV show while it is broadcasting and his boss fires him for doing so among others suggest Kang has often avoided responsibility for serious mistakes or fled problems when they should be confronted. Denial definitely plays a part in his flight response: the legend Sujin tells Kang about a boy and a girl who witness a murder in the Spider Forest cabin turns out to be partly based on something that actually occurred in Kang’s childhood which forced him and his father to leave their community. Denial and avoidance thus became part of Kang’s mental arsenal of dealing with life and its problems at an early age.
Kang’s need to visit Spider Forest in spite of his injuries and the constant replay of death and murder in his mind suggest a growing realisation that he can no longer live his life by old mental habits and must face up to his ultimate responsbility, portrayed in the movie by what he discovers behind a metal door in a cave deep in Spider Forest in the climax. This is the loopiest (literally) scene in the movie, very much like what I’d expect to see in a David Lynch film, yet it makes good sense if “Spider Forest” is read as a film about memory, the process of remembering, and people learning to live with losses and to confront and tackle things and issues they have tried to deny or evade in the past.
There’s much visual beauty in the film, particularly in the daytime scenes filmed in the forest that serves as Spider Forest and in the scenes where Kang and Sujin take a ski-lift ride and are briefly suspended in the blue sky overlooking the mountain scenery. In the evening scenes, the forest appears as tall spindly ghostly beings that might well harbour creepy spiders (representing the dark niches of memory that store unpleasant secrets) and vengeful killers. The acting is understated with Suh Jung notable in playing two roles, the impassive, almost anaemic Sujin and the lively, laughing wife Eun-ah. Kam is impressive also, having to carry the entire film as a man having difficulties in accepting his wife’s death and being forced to face up to denial, failure and responsbility in his life, and then on top of all that, being knocked over physically and enduring serious head injuries and problems.
The atmosphere can be creepy and often has an ethereal, spiritual feel throughout the film. Some viewers may find the pace quite slow and the tension builds up little by little for a resolution to the murder that many people will be able to solve about halfway through the movie. Being billed as just a horror movie does “Spider Forest” no favour as, in spite of the name and the first several minutes, there’s really nothing about the film at all that fits the conventional horror movie template: calm, even laidback in some ways, the obvious “horror” aspects like the mysterious cellphone caller and the ghost forest appearance appearing like McGuffins that in the end add nothing to the plot, “Spider Forest” turns out to be a well-dressed and visually stunning art-house puzzle. Recommended for those with no preconceptions of what a psychological study / horror / art-house drama should run like, the movie should be seen at least twice or three times for its meaning to be properly understood.