Judge Joel Pearce guarantees you'll get lost in these woods.
It's a Mulholland drive through the woods…
One of the most obtuse films I've had the pleasure—or displeasure—of reviewing for the site, Spider Forest is not a movie I would recommend for most of our readership. There's no denying it has beautiful visuals and a creepy tone, though. Daring and patient viewers just might find this one of the most challenging and haunting films of recent memory, even if it doesn't make any sense at all.
Facts of the Case
A man named Kang (Gam Woo-sung) arrives at a remote cabin, only to discover a man and woman who have been brutally murdered. He is then chased by a mysterious man, and eventually run over by a speeding car. When he wakes from surgery, he discovers that his memory of the event are fuzzy. He begins and investigation to discover what happened to him. The search leads to two women. The first is Su-young (Kang Kyeong-heon), the woman murdered in the cabin (and also his lover). The second is Min Su-jin (Jung Suh, The Isle), a photo developer near the mysterious "spider forest" where the murders took place.
In mythology, the forest has always been a world of dreams, especially nightmares. There is something dreamlike about the woods themselves, and many stories still use that fact. From A Midsummer Night's Dream to The Lord of the Rings, fictional forests are places that follow a different set of rules. To say that Spider Forest carries on that narrative tradition would be an understatement. In this version of mythology, the forest is home to spiders, each one representing a person who has been completely forgotten.
The story of Spider Forest plays with both dreams and memories, though I can't say with confidence which is which. As Kang searches his memory, it becomes unclear what he is remembering and what he is merely dreaming. While some details are revealed towards the end, the story doesn't culminate in a plot twist that answers all of the questions that most viewers will find themselves yelling at the screen half-way through the movie. Part of this confusion comes from the smattering of genres that have been mixed together without warning. The film isn't a mystery—though there is a central mystery in the plot, the solution isn't the ultimate goal of the story. It isn't a horror movie either, even though the murder is about as gruesome as any I have seen in the movies. There is a romance, but it's certainly not a love story. There isn't enough action to consider it an action movie, though it's so fast paced that it can't really be considered an art film.
Confusing or not, Spider Forest is definitely well made. The direction is assured, and the cinematography is stunning. Visual clues and motifs run through the film, prompting the viewer to tunnel deeper and deeper into the confusing web. The performances are subtle and rich, creating real pathos even in the most bizarre moments.
Kang is an intriguing character, especially once we realize that we are taking a confusing journey through his subconscious. Unfortunately, neither of the women are as compelling, and were included more or less as window dressing. The actresses do the best they can, but are not given enough material to work with. The lead police officer acts as though he's wandered off the set of an action movie, and ultimately has no purpose in the main plot.
The biggest problem in the film is that it's simply not as compelling as it should be. By the third time the plot winds back on itself, I was getting bored and frustrated, not intrigued as I should have been. There is nothing to hold on to, narratively speaking, even by the end. I don't mind being taken on a wild narrative ride, but at the end of it all I like to understand why I was taken. Is this film meant to be an examination of jealousy and infidelity? The pain of loss? A Freudian dream analysis? Any one of these would have been fine with me, but more clarity was needed.
The DVD is also disappointing. The video transfer is downright terrible, with compression problems and edge enhancement that destroys any enjoyment of the beautiful cinematography. There are visible lines around any contrast, and rainbows of color smother the fine details on many objects. Outdoor scenes are even worse, which is a serious problem in a movie about a forest.
The sound transfer is better, though not without problems of its own. While there is a good amount of separation between channels, there is also a hiss that is present in both the Dolby and DTS tracks.
There are a number of extras on the disc. The first is a 20-minute collection of production footage, mostly of the actors performing and joking around between takes. There are also interviews of the actors discussing their characters and how they feel about the woods. (why do interviewers always assume that actors have nothing worthwhile to say?) A collection of deleted scenes does nothing to answer the lingering questions.
Few people will have the patience and appreciation for ambiguity required to enjoy Spider Forest. Of that small group, few will be happy with this DVD. If you want to give it a try, I would strongly recommend a rental before you commit to buying this version. Again, I can't claim that the film is poorly made, I would just never want to watch it again.
The producers of Spider Forest are hereby given a small fine for getting lost in the woods. Tartan is instructed to pay closer attention to their transfer next time.
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