The central protagonist of Spider Forest is not the luckiest of souls. When we first encounter Kang Min, he is awakening in the titular forest, having been knocked unconscious, only to wander into a remote cabin where his girlfriend and his boss have been brutally hacked to death. Catching a glimpse of the killer, he is pursued through the woods until he finds himself on a freeway, and is hit by a vehicle, sustaining a head injury that renders him comatose. Spider Forest then balances two time-frames that gradually deconstruct the fractured psyche of Kang Min. Through flashbacks, we learn that he lost his wife in a plane crash, and has embarked on a new relationship with a colleague from the TV station where he serves as the producer of a true-life mystery programme. This is juxtaposed with Kang Min’s return to the Spider Forest to reconstruct the events prior to his accident, and revelations about his own past and its relation to the area.
Writer-director II-gon Song has adopted a determinedly obtuse approach to the psychological thriller genre, and although details of his film will continue to puzzle even the most attentive viewer long after the closing credits, the twist in the tale is obvious from the outset, making Spider Forest a dramatically inert experience, albeit an intriguing and atmospheric one. Non-linear narratives and distorted memories have become favoured cinematic approaches and subjects in recent years, and Spider Forest shares similarities with David Lynch’s Lost Highway and Mulholland Dr in its juggling of the real and the imagined. The relationship between Kang Min and the sympathetic police detective who wants to believe that the obvious murder suspect is actually the victim of an elaborate corporate set-up, is reminiscent of the bond that develops between the disfigured playboy of Alexander Amenabar’s Abre los ojos and his fatherly psychiatrist, although Song’s film is too preoccupied with its own form of symbolic logic to properly develop any palpable character dynamics or emotive undercurrents.
Ultimately, Spider Forest lacks the narrative momentum of those earlier films, succeeding more as a series of strangely unsettling moments. Kang Min grinning perversely when he cuts his mouth on a whisky glass whilst drowning his sorrows, or his wife miming the eating of an apple as she makes herbal tea are scenes that linger longer than the themes of memory and personal loss, or the explicit blood-letting of the final reel. Woo-seong Kam is oddly emphatic in the lead role, but of the supporting characters, only Kang Min’s stone-faced boss registers, delivering such business maxims as ‘If the sword is too short, you lunge’ and ‘If things are tough, double your efforts’ as he simultaneously performs sexual acts and munches on fresh fruit. Those who become entangled in Spider Forest may struggle with its sedate pacing and overly interpretive conclusion, yet the beautifully photographed opening and closing scenes, and a haunting score that is reminiscent of Mychael Danna’s music for the films of Atom Egoyan, lend the film a dreamlike quality that is far removed from most Asia Extreme offerings.