Struggling to write his new screenplay, movie director Jang (Jang Hyun-sang) arrives on a remote island and books into a deserted motel run by a young and unfailingly cheerful woman named Lee (Lee So-yeon). She lives with her uncle, a man who hasn’t spoken a word since his wife walked out on him. Ostensibly Jang intends to work on his script but what’s really prompted his arrival is that 10 years earlier he and his musician girlfriend stayed on the same island and agreed to reunite there a decade later. Although the pair have long since separated Jang wants to find out if his ex remembers their agreement. But as Jang settles in it begins to look as though his old flame won’t be turning up. Then one day a shipment for him arrives at the island. To his frustration no sender is listed but the delivery is a piano. Is this a sign that Jang’s former lover is on her way?
There’s a beguiling quality to director Song Il-gon’s follow up to his splendid Spider Forest (2004). Like that film this is also about loss, memory and renewal and it’s filled with a symbolism the meaning of which proves tantalising rather than frustrating. The film hooks you right from the start because Jang’s quest is an easy one to empathise with. After all, there can’t be many people who haven’t wondered – if only in passing – what it might be like to reunite with a former lover, to wonder if – a decade down the line – you’re still on their mind as much as they are on yours. It helps too that Jang doesn’t seem driven by self-pity or much in the way of bitterness (well, other than refusing to root for the German footie team during the world cup because his former love left him for a Kraut, I suppose). As the story develops there are hints as to where Il-gon’s going with this. Lee’s uncle – living in self-imposed silence because his woman’s left him – feels like the kind of person Jang might become and the film’s refusal to show us the face of Jang’s lover as anything other than an out of focus blur implies that contrary to expectations a happy reunion probably isn’t on the cards. Other possibilities then present themselves. Jang’s desultory chats with the exuberant Lee have us assuming it’s these two who’ll fall in love and yet the performances from Hyun-sang and So-yeon are so naturalistic and unforced, their dialogue so devoid of any cute bits of business, that the film’s ultimate destination remains hard to guess.
The evocation of a gusty, rain-swept island in offseason really gives the film a fateful, foreboding feel and yet the mood is undercut by delightfully out-of-left-field moments such as Lee’s tango with an unidentified female partner on the roof of her hotel, or Jang discovering and freeing a beautiful blue peacock that’s gotten entangled on the beach. There’s a joy in this film that creeps up on you and takes you completely by surprise. Even Lee’s Uncle, who’s been suffering in silence the whole film, eventually gets his wife back and Lee’s discovery of a letter hidden in the piano addresses Jang’s (and ours) curiosity about what happened to his ex. In the Latin rhythms of the film’s score and the persistent motif of the Tango (there’s a lovely scene around a bonfire in which Lee takes Jang as her partner for a little twirl) one senses the use of this splendidly eye-catching dance as a symbol of life and counterpoint to the solitude and loneliness that seems to bedevil all the characters in one way or another. When the attraction between Jang and Lee which has been coursing under the surface finally bursts into the open we really root for Lee to make it to the ferry in time to tell a departing Jang that she will indeed meet him in Seoul a year from now. The final scene is a classic “Will they, won’t they” setup which ends happily. But although we’re pleased and satisfied these two are together the real pleasure of the movie is something deeper than the fizzy high of two likeable characters reuniting, it’s the sense that in the course of the story a weight has been lifted from Jang’s soul and that the viewer comes away feeling just as refreshed as he does.
At a cabin deep in the woods Kang (Gam Woo-sung) is witness to the blood-soaked corpses of two murder victims, one of which is his girlfriend Su-yeong (Kang Gyeong-heon). While chasing the killer Kang is badly injured and nearly killed when he stumbles into the path of a passing car. Waking up a fortnight later in hospital Kang’s first action is to call for the police. But as an official investigation gets underway troubling gaps in Kang’s recollection of events not only throw into question the identity of the killer, but a witness who could testify to Kang’s innocence can’t be found and even the nature of what exactly happened on that night seems increasingly uncertain.
Had this remarkable film been played as a straight down the line amnesiac murder mystery that would have been fine enough but writer-director Song Il-Gon is only really interested in using the thriller aspects as a peg on which to hang a mesmerising portrait of a grief-stricken man recovering from some shattering trauma in which remembrance is the key (it’s pretty obvious from the start who the shadowy figure pursuing our hero is but in any case that isn’t really the point). Instead we’re presented with a succession of flashbacks filling in Kang’s life, the most suggestive of which has him sent on a work assignment to the sticks (he’s a tv news editor/cameraman) to interview a pretty photo store owner, Min Su-Jin (Suh Jung) about a legend concerning a nearby forest. According to Min the spiders of the titular forest are really human spirits waiting for someone to remember them before they can be freed. At this point the story audaciously reworks the thriller elements of its grisly double murder into myth. For Min tells Jung that long ago two schoolchildren – a boy and a girl – lived happily in Spider Forest. But the girl died in circumstances (presented with sudden and terrifying abruptness) which ominously echo the present day cabin murder. In this way the film not only blurs the line between fantasy and reality it raises further possibilities; what if the amnesiac Kang was the little boy in that story? If he was – and since the police have yet to discover any evidence of his murder claim – then maybe what’s going on here is a severely traumatised man whose long repressed childhood memories of a gruesome double murder are bubbling up to the surface of his mind and manifesting themselves as delusions.
We then learn that Kang’s first wife (Suh Jung, in dual roles), was killed in an air crash shortly after he saw her off at an airport. In the tale of the two children related by Min the last the boy sees of his girl is when she literally floats out of his arms into the sky above Spider forest. Su-yeong, the female tv producer Kang begins a relationship with after his wife’s death, is murdered for what appears to be the same reason that motivated the slaughter witnessed by the two children. We’re told that afterwards the boy suffered an illness that caused him to forget everything that happened in the forest. Later, a teacher at the boy’s school contradicts the story, telling Kang there was no double murder and that the little girl simply fell ill and died. As these contradictory details emerge not only the motivation of the mysterious killer but the very fact of the double murder that kicks off the film begins to waver. About all we can be sure of is that Kang is hurting because of the traumatic loss of someone he loved. But who that someone was remains tantalisingly ambiguous. The director’s casting of pretty Suh Jung as two of the women who loom large in Kang’s life is suggestive but everything we see here is given equal dramatic weight. Granted, this style of narrative is as likely to infuriate as delight but handsome Gam Woo-Sung is excellent as the dreadfully injured protagonist searching for answers. That the film works as well as it does is primarily because Kang’s plight so involves us emotionally and let’s face it – that empathy is what you need to carry you through a film as narratively ambiguous as this.
The happiness in Kang’s life seems constantly overwhelmed by undeserved misery and Woo-sung has such a pleasingly gentle, receptive quality as an actor you feel tremendous empathy for him. In an intimate moment with wife Suh Jung on the eve of her doomed flight the pair make desultory small talk over a glass of wine, she does a silly little mime involving an apple (something later echoed during one of the film’s more disturbing scenes) and the way Kang watches makes it abundantly clear just how much he loves her. His mental paralysis as he receives the news of his wife’s death at work is very nicely played. He’s a good physical actor too; watching Kang haul himself from his hospital bed, his face a mass of hideous purple bruises, blood and brain fluids leaking from a ghastly head wound, agonisingly dragging himself back and forth to the scene of the crime like some refugee from The Walking Dead has you flinching inside at his every move. Suh Jung is equally effective as the film’s other major character, photo shop owner Min Su-Jin. She occupies a fascinating position in what turns out to be a psychodrama playing out entirely in one man’s mind. My own theory – for what it’s worth – is that she’s actually Kang’s dream of what the schoolgirl he used to know would have become had he not fallen ill and forgotten her. That right at the end of the film Min asks him not to forget her seems to tie in with the legend of Spider Forest and the implication that the forest itself is really a metaphor for Kang’s own subconscious. Indeed, the film is full of the symbols of dreams. Reflections, tunnels, keys and doors all figure prominently. Il-Gon constructs a web of allusions in which fantasy and reality, past and present, all overlap each other and the meaning seems to hover tantalisingly just out of reach.
The other strong element here is Song Il-Gon’s direction which is clever in the way it implies links between events in different time frames through repetition of a particular camera angle or movement within the frame. The certainty of tone means the film juggles the thriller/investigative elements with romance, character drama and even a few outright fantasy moments with equal aplomb. I especially liked the touch of black humour Il-Gon finds in the midst of a brutal murder scene in which the killer’s rampage is temporarily brought to a halt because the sickle he’s using has gotten jammed in the skull of one of his victims and no amount of pushing and pulling seems able to free it. Ever since I saw Spider Forest in 2005 it’s been one of those films that’s stayed with me. A rewatch 12 years on proved every bit as compelling as it did the first time. I still can’t figure it all out even though its writer/director claims to have written the original script as a straightforward linear thriller before deciding to rearrange the sequence of events into something determinedly non-linear, but as enigmas go this one’s a pleasure to spend time with.