The man tells his wife he had a dream — a nightmare. She tells him that bad dreams are portents of good things, and asks him to describe it to her.
It is a quiet, domestic scene, over tea in the early morning hours. It could not be more ordinary.
He tells her that in his dream, she died in a plane crash.
Her expression falls. She implores him not to give up on his life.
But it was only a dream, he protests. And bad dreams —
No, she says. It’s reality.
And she walks into the darkness.
Such are the layers of circular logic and confusion in Spider Forest, a striking, rich, haunted movie by writer-director Song Il-gon that was released on DVD in the U.S. on October 25.
The film is part dream, part memory, part denial, and it is suffused with grief and guilt. It is at once lovely and brutal, delicate and hard, sympathetic and unforgiving. It has a feel both foreign and familiar, like the image in the movie of a girl whose body rises into the air feet-first, as if God’s hand gently plucked her by the ankle and took her into the heavens. It’s a mesmerizing work, something far greater and more resonant than its conceit or component parts would suggest.
The Korean film has the familiar hallmarks of a psychological mystery and police procedural. Two people have been butchered in a cabin in a place called Spider Forest. Kang Min (the husband in the scene described above) discovers the bodies, encounters and chases the assailant, and ends up in a roadway tunnel, where he’s run down by a speeding vehicle. He’s alive but suffers serious head trauma.
A cop who’s an acquaintance believes that Kang was not involved in the murders. The officer’s boss is skeptical. What follows is a journey through Kang’s memory, in which the audience and the main character unravel truths more sad than surprising.
Any synopsis of Spider Forest will inevitably spark associations with other films, particularly the subgenre of psychological thriller in which objective reality conflicts with the main character’s (and the audience’s) experience. (These three movies seem particularly appropriate comparisons, although they all look somewhat simple next to this.)
Yet Spider Forest is not fundamentally a puzzle movie, because the basic solution is readily available in the movie’s opening — the events leading up to Kang’s injury — and delineated in a key bit of dialogue early on, in which the principle of Ockham’s Razor is concisely articulated.
Song isn’t just playing fair; he’s inviting viewers to approach the movie differently, to give themselves over to a spell rather than working hard at figuring out what’s going on. Song’s movie is in tone and texture more narrative poem than story, complex and dense with a dark, lulling elegance — allusive and elusive.
You are, of course, welcome to try to explicate it and break down its contradictions and nuances, its themes and rhymes and rhythms, its mysteries and realities. Good luck. Most films of this sort demand your attention and careful scrutiny, while Spider Forest almost repels those efforts; it coaxes you into abandoning reason and submitting to it on a subconscious level.
That’s because the movie is rarely anything but subconscious. There is a concrete world outside of Kang’s brain, but the audience only gets bits of it. And, bluntly, Kang’s mind is kind of fucked-up right now.
Since his accident, Kang seems to be living in something of a personal loop. He keeps losing people close to him, although it’s unclear in some situations whether they’ve actually died or have simply been misplaced in his brain. The narrative keeps repeating and echoing itself, in ways large and small.
He tells the cop his story, reciting from memory, not in the way one lists states and capitals, but in the sense that there’s no filtering, no self-consciousness, no sense of self-preservation. He is not participating in an investigation, and he’s not talking to a friend; he’s just ... telling the story.
Storytelling is a dominant theme in the movie, ranging from folklore to first-person testimony to photographs to television news. Song seems to be eulogizing story less as a way to communicate than as a form of remembrance — as a way to keep the dead present.
Late in the movie, the audience learns that Spider Forest draws its name from legend, that the unremembered dead become spiders in this particular woodland. The two dead bodies, undiscovered for weeks, are crawling with the creatures. Before his accident, Kang is bitten by a spider, and falls ill.
But what do the spiders mean?
Spider Forest is heavy with ambiguous meaning, with motifs recalling fairy tales, legends, and dreams. It’s a psychoanalyst’s wet dream, one that mines the mind in all its base fears, primitive symbols, and inscrutability.
Beyond the spiders, apples and tunnels recur regularly, invoking myriad associations. Might the tunnel represent the birth canal, a passage to death, time travel, or merely a journey?
What of the dense forest? Is this wilderness meant to signify danger (as in fairy tales) or reflect brutish and primitive urges and actions — a state of nature?
On the latter question, Song’s movie offers ample evidence. There are two key sex scenes, and it’s critical to understanding them that they’re filtered through Kang’s memory. The first takes place in an urban environment and is (from a man’s perspective) erotic and mutually liberated, with plenty of female flesh to ogle.
The second takes place in the forest and in its primal quality borders on rape, aggressive but also ridiculous. The man is pumping furiously into the woman — she is not convincingly consenting and, not coincidentally, is the same woman from the first sex scene — while lecturing her with business clichés and ripping apart an apple with his teeth in a crude imitation of eating. What happens next in that cabin can be viewed as a version of uncivilized retribution, borne of jealousy and anger and, perhaps, history.
And in the tunnel that carries people from the wild to civilization, there’s punishment that is still extreme but is more consistent with the rule of law. The penalty in the tunnel is impersonal and proportionally more appropriate than that in the cabin; it resembles justice.
Beyond that, Spider Forest remains an enigma to me after two viewings, and I might never unravel it fully.
But it’s not a closed system. Most psychological thrillers either have a single valid, intended interpretation or are impenetrable. Spider Forest is refreshingly open, and I’m guessing that any audience’s reading of it and reaction to it will depend greatly on mood, experience, and attentiveness.
But whatever you take from the movie, the power of some central images is undeniable. A spider biting. The tunnel, lit somehow with an otherworldly ochre light. Kang, screaming in anguish as he realizes that he has completed another circle of loss, and has literally ended up right where he began.