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'Spider Forest'[DVD Review]

2006/02/22 | 936 views | Permalink | Source

Song Il-gon's latest film an intricate mystery with an art house style

Kim Kyu Hyun (internews)

Kang Min (Kam Woo-sung), a TV reporter, stumbles onto a horrific scene of double murder in an isolated cabin. His colleague and newscaster, Soo Young (Jang Hyun-sung), is one of the victims. She whispers, "Spiders ... it's so scary" before breathing her last. Kang notices a mysterious figure and gives him chase, only to be upstaged and beaten unconscious. Dazed, he walks into a highway tunnel and spies a familiar looking shadow, just before being crushed by a speeding SUV.

Production notes

An Oak Film Production. Distributed by CJ Entertainment, in association with Egg Film Productions.

Written and Directed by Song Il-gon. Music by Yoon Min-hwa. Edited by Choi Jae-geun. Production Design by Jun Hye Sung. Make-up Effects by Lee Eun Ah. Costume design by Kim Eun Sook. Cinematography by Kim Chil-joo. Executive Producer Kim Dae-hyeon.

International distribution by CJ Entertainment. 120 minutes.
Kang somehow survives a harrowing brain operation but becomes a major suspect in the double-murder case. Encouraged by his cop friend assigned to the case (Jang Hyun-sung), Kang retraces his steps leading to his discovery of the murder victims. He cannot shake the feeling, however, that there are strange gaps in his memory ... and they have something to do with the beautiful and kind studio photographer Soo Jin (Suh Jung) whom he interviewed for a TV program, as well as her stories about that darned forest crawling with those creepy spiders.

"Spider Forest" is the second feature film made by Song Il-gon, who, along with Moon Seung-wook ("Nabi: The Butterfly", a Tarkovskian science fiction film and a debut for the rising star Kang Hye-jung), is notable among Korean filmmakers for having been educated in the Polish National Academy of Cinema in Lodz. Song's films eschew linear narrative and Hollywood-style characterizations in bold strokes, partaking of the dreamy, evocative stylistics of eastern European cinema: painterly, austere, and richly spiritual.

His debut "Flower Island (2001)" was a road movie about three women facing horrible circumstances of their own, traveling together to a fictitious "Flower Island" where their wishes are supposed to come true. Well received at the Venice Film Festival, it was a warm-hearted but ultimately low-octane art film, a non-romantic Agnes Varda piece by way of Wim Wenders, graced with excellent performances from its ensemble cast. Although Song's films are definitely not for those without tolerance for "art house" sensibilities, I find them always genuinely caring toward the characters and their inner psychological struggles, a quality that deserves to be cherished.

For his sophomore effort, Song Il-gon constructs an elaborate Escher-like puzzle piece that assumes the guise of a murder mystery or supernatural thriller but, in fact, is neither. Even though the film does include scenes of sex and extreme violence, not to mention horrendous, cringe-inducing shots of a decomposed body seemingly devoured by spiders, it really is at heart an exploration of a character's internal landscape and very much a continuation of the theme of his first film -- the lost souls rediscovering their capacity to live on through love and compassion for one another.

Kam Woo-sung, who, along with Baek Jong-hak, specializes in the portrayal of the cynical intelligentsia in such hits as "Marriage Is a Crazy Thing", and "The King and the Clown", gives a deceptively affecting performance as the protagonist Kang Min. Director Song teases out from the blank-faced Gam a sensitive interpretation of a man bound by his tragic past and unable to overcome the profound despair yawning like a bottomless pit in front of him.

Jang Hyun-sung, also in "Nabi: The Butterfly" and Song's more recent "Git" ("Feathers in the Wind"), provides solid support as Kang's cop friend, whose ultimate fate might make some viewers scratch their heads. But the film's emotional center belongs to two women, Soo Jin and Min's deceased wife Eun Ah, remarkable dual roles for the powerhouse actress Suh Jung (probably best known to non-Korean viewers as the silent "water witch" in Kim Ki-duk's "The Isle").

Soo Jin regards Kang with a sorrowful gaze, enveloping the movie in a fairy-tale ambience without ever becoming cute or insulting the viewer's intelligence: we believe that she and the story she tells are "real", even when the movie flagrantly indicates otherwise (the only sequence that struck me as rather hackneyed is where Soo Jin, suspended in a ski lift, relates to Kang the legend of the Spider Forest). Eun Ah, on the other hand, makes such a striking impression during her short time on screen - vivacious and beautiful - that, after her death, we share Kang's sense of loss and remain sympathetic to his immersion in feelings of guilt and denial.

Melancholy and thoughtful, "Spider Forest" is highly recommended to a viewer who might enjoy an intricate mystery or an atmospheric, "quiet" horror film, but with an open mind toward surrealistic or magic realist touches usually expected in an art-house film. It is another fascinating example of the audaciously modernist direction that Korean genre films made by younger, 30s-something filmmakers have taken: blurring and sometimes altogether erasing the borderline between "external" and "internal" realities, not merely to cleverly manipulate the viewer's expectations, as in movies like "Identity" and "The Machinist", but also to get at the disturbing, naked emotional truths at the core of the so-called realities created by our minds.

DVD Presentation:

Tartan USA DVD. NTSC. Dual Layer. Region 1. Audio: Korean (Dolby Digital 5.1 Surround, Dolby Digital 2.0, DTS). Subtitles: English, Spanish. Retail Price $24.99. Street Date: September 20, 2005.

"Spider Forest" was picked up for U.S. distribution by Tartan USA's Extreme Asia division, and the same company released it as a Region 1 DVD, with much of the special features ported over from the 2004 Universal-Korea Region 3 (actually No Region) release. Unlike Tartan's more high-profile releases, such as "Old Boy", Song Il-gon's commentary is not included, which is a shame. Tartan's 1.85:1 widescreen anamorphic transfer is good, if not spectacular. Colors are robust, dark areas remain stable, but a large monitor reveals considerable noise in the shrubberies and greeneries, which unfortunately turn up a lot in this particular film. Patterns crawl and shimmer on the red wallpapers in Soo Jin's studio, too. The Universal-Korea disc's transfer is brighter and sharper but also sports a coarser look, with quite a bit of grain. Despite its less-than-optimal transfer, the Tartan USA version possibly captures the film's noir-ish mood a little better than the Universal-Korea version, while diminishing the luminous effect of the morning sunlight in several scenes. Disappointingly, the print used is not in a pristine condition, with occasional scratches and specks turning up.

Audio, on the other hand, is satisfactorily strong, and Yoon Min Hwa's beautiful score comes out rather well. (The disc automatically defaults to the DTS channel, which could be annoying for those stuck with old-model DVD players). English subtitles are virtually identical to those in the Korean disc, with slightly improved timing and punctuation. Thankfully, the font is much easier to read. The subs themselves are generally well done, with a few inappropriate colloquialisms and "huh?" moments (confessing a murder immediately after the crime is "lame"), but not overly distracting on the whole.

Special features include the average-quality making-of documentary and interviews with the three leads, all very polite, well-behaved, and full of praise for one another. They are all subtitled in English. Up next are deleted scenes, mostly dialog-heavy, with more character exposition. Unfortunately, the English subtitles for them display lack of understanding for Korean history and social context, misconstruing, for example, the TV producer's hateful boasting of covering a student demonstration as a recollection of filming an actual war ("Tear gas canisters" is mistakenly translated as "bombs", and so on). Special features are rounded out by two original-release trailers (both rather loud and incapable of conveying the quietly menacing and dejected tone of the film itself), a sparse photo gallery, and the previews for other Korean horror films released through the Tartan Extreme label (the trailer for "Face" makes the movie appear a whole lot better than it actually is, while "Unborn but Forgotten" and "Acacia" trailers are as dopey as the movies themselves).

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