Spider Forest (Geomi sup)

Korea (2004) Dir. Song Il-gon

K-Horror often has a darker, psychological edge over its Japanese counterpart, largely through not looking to its traditional folklore for its inspiration. While just as guilty of inflicting long, black haired vengeful girl spirits upon us as the Japanese, Koreans generally take a much different route to rattle our nerves.

Spider Forest is an example of this, opening with the discovery of a particularly gruesome murder before veering off to a journey through the sprawling, reality bending memories of a man fresh off brain surgery. The man in question is TV producer Kang Min (Kam Woo-Sung), who stumbles through the titular spider forest, arriving at a small cabin in which upon the bodies of his girlfriend Hwang Su-Young (Kang Kyeong-Heon) and colleague Choi Jong-Pil (Cho Sung-Ha). Choi hacked bloody corpse has spiders crawling over it while Su-Young is barely alive, muttering an apology to Min.

Min feels another presence and give chase, taking a sickle with him but is attacked then run over and left for dead. Fourteen days after receiving brain surgery Min awakens, barely able to speak. His detective friend Choi Seong-Hyeon (Jang Hyun-sung) is on the murder case but due to Min’s fingerprints being on the murder weapon, he is the prime suspect. With his brains literally scrambled, Min has to try to remember everything that led up to the murder in order to clear his name.

Where to begin? Song Il-gon has made a film that is intrinsically Korean but with the veneer of a French arthouse film from the 60’s, suggesting the works of Claude Chabrol from this period. This might explain why it was not a success in its native Korea yet was better received by European audiences, although this doesn’t feel like this is the whole reason.

Perhaps the fractured narrative was just to oblique for Asian audiences – complete attention is required to keep up with the various developments and to make sense of what we are watching. It is imperative to remember that we are viewing the memories of a man who had been in a coma following brain surgery, and as we learn, was already under a great deal of personal stress prior to that. If he doesn’t know what he is recalling is real how is the viewer supposed to fare any better?

It is here we have the conceit of the story, which flits about from period to period, telling more stories within other stories. The tangled web of memories is just one of the many examples of the spider leitmotif prevalent throughout the film, which extends beyond any convenient relevance to the creepy title. For us Arachnophobes just the sight of the little buggers is enough to give us the willies but Song has cleverly applied them to the script beyond a superficial level.

One flashback scene sees a spider be the catalyst for a major plot development while the pesky little critters are part of a legend about the titular forest, representing the spirits of the deceased who had no-one to love them. Some get to be set free but those who don’t turn into spiders with no memories. Of course this could all be a load of cobblers due to the unreliability of these distorted trips down memory lane.

The person who shares this information is Jin Su-Min (Seo Jung), a softly spoken woman who runs a photography shop near by the forest. Min sees her in his memories but is unsure about why he knows her, finally recalling that he spoke to her while making a programme about the mysterious forest. She is as much an enigma as every other piece of this puzzle, including the smiling young woman in the photograph Min found in his jacket (also played by Seo Jung).

It’s tempting to say that it reads more confusing than it actually is in execution but Song has deliberately crafted a script that is intentionally confusing for both the characters and the viewer. It is not so confusing though that we can’t follow the plot as everything is leading to the same conclusion, even if the journey is more arduous dependant on the route. Knowing what is true and was is the result of Min’s addled mind is clearly not obvious but keen eyed viewers will notice certain details that help construct at least one version of events.

In essence Song’s tale is a kind of Rashomon style mystery in which we are shown a number of different versions of the same story, with the central change being that the source is the one person. The supernatural element is rather scarce all told, mostly saved until the final act but undertones are present due to the twisting nature of Min’s unsteady memories. It’s also a partly a procedural crime drama with a philosophical exploration of identity and how the dramatic effect the loss of memory has on our very being.

Song keeps pace the measured, perhaps a bit too focused on moment so lesser in the early going of the flashbacks, but it soon settles into a steady routine of drip feeding us new bits of information with each revived memory. In a perspicacious move the photography style changes as the stories do, reflecting the varying moods and themes of each scene, creating a unique compendium of atmospheric tales.  

Kam Woo-Sung has the unenviable task of portraying multiple Mins, from the young and happy, to the older and stressed, to the confused and ailing. This he does, giving himself completely to the role even at the expense of making himself almost unrecognisable. Seo Jung is also on double duty, albeit under slightly different circumstances, but her commitment to both roles is no less admirable than Kam’s.

Unquestionably a mixed bag of a film, Spider Forest is a unique blend of genres that makes you think and pay close attention to each nuanced detail, while taking you on an unsettling ride deep into the human mind.

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