Monday 29 June 2009

Spider Forest (2004)

Director: Song Il-gon
Stars: Kam Woo-seong and Jung Suh

It's been almost a month since I saw a Korean movie, which is a sad state of affairs indeed, and Sundance describe this one as Memento meets Jacob's Ladder. How freaky can this be? With that description I wouldn't even care if there there aren't any spiders in this forest, but fortunately there are. They go very well with fourteen day old corpses in horror stories, but this one's not just a horror movie: it's a drama, a mystery and a thriller, all wrapped in the same happy go lucky bundle.

We begin with a man waking up in the forest and walking back to the cabin nearby. There he finds one male corpse that he thinks looks like himself, stabbed over forty times. In the next room is his girlfriend, not quite dead yet but pretty close. She's only been stabbed three times so is still alive and talking of spiders while looking up at a hatchway. Our man hears something, so grabs a scythe, perhaps the murder weapon itself, and opens the hatch, only to find another man on the other side who he chases into the forest.

Unfortunately for him, the man he's chasing doubles back and knocks him senseless. This time when we wakes up he leaves the forest and finds his way into a road tunnel where he gets knocked senseless again by an SUV. He's left for dead, but rescued and operated on. After brain surgery he spends two weeks in a coma and only when he comes out of it can he notify the police of the atrocity at the cabin. The rest of the film lets us in on the mystery piece by piece, and like any jigsaw the pieces don't come in order. Part of the joy here is trying to figure it all out.

Let me tell you this much though. He's Kang Min, a producer at a TV station called IBS who works on a show called Mystery Theatre. The corpses are his fiancee Hwang Su-yeong, who is a reporter and presenter at the same station, and their boss, Choi Seong-hyeon. Choi sends him to the forest for his show, as it's apparently haunted, but he's also directed there by an unknown tipster on the phone, who sends him to the cabin itself to find his fiancee with another man. He recounts all this to a cop friend of his, who . I should add that Kang had a former wife, a choreographer who died in a plane crash, and we know that he saw her ghost at least once.

Spider Forest is well shot, but deceptively so. I didn't reel back in stunned amazement at any one scene, but I was solidly impressed throughout at the consistent beauty of the piece. It's content to do what it does very well indeed without needing to wheel out showy theatrics to wow us. Similarly the actors do precisely the jobs they're tasked with subtle panache and without ever trying to steal scenes from each other. It's the story that matters here, more than anything, and its way of dropping hints and wanting us to work it all out. I think I have most of it but there's definitely room for interpretation.

Put simply, there are three major traumas in this film for Kang, each with their respective resulting pain and confusion: a multiple murder when he's a child, the death of his wife in a plane crash and the double homicide that begins our film. The story is structured so cleverly that it's very possible that one or two of these traumas aren't even real and that the according chunk of the story takes place entirely within Kang's subconscious mind. As we watch we pick up on hints that speak to what may be real or fabrication, but we have to bear in mind that some of those hints may be fabrication also. There are certainly layers to this that may only come clearer with further viewing.

The man responsible is Song Il-gon, the writer and director, who has made seven films since 1997. To say that I'd certainly be interested in seeing more of his work is an understatement, if there's any potential for it to be as fascinating as this. He also works frequently with Jang Hyeong-seong, who plays Choi here. I haven't seen any of these actors before, but he's the next I'm likely to see again, having been more prolific than the others and more versatile too. He's made a number of horror movies, especially surrounding this one, films with generic names like The Legend of Evil Lake and Ghost House as well as a far more intriguing one called My Right to Ravage Myself. When it comes to films like this though, they're hard to categorise and they sit in the spaces between those titles that leap out. Sometimes those are the best of them all.

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