Review: 2016’s Korean Film Festival foregrounds women in Korean cinema with strong gala opener The Truth Beneath

2015, Directed by Lee Kyoung-mi , starring Son Ye-jin, Kim Joo-hyuk .
103 mins

RATING: ★★★★

The Korean Film Festival runs 3-17 November in London and also continues around the UK beyond that. See the KFF website for more details.

This year’s 2016 Korean Film Festival in London promised a special focus on the lives of women through the eyes of Korean female directors. Appropriately then, the festival proper opened with this political drama directed by a woman, in this case Lee Kyoung-mi – who made a strong impression with her acclaimed feature debut Crush and Blush – which was produced by Park Chan-wook of Oldboy fame. Eight years later, and she has returned with The Truth Beneath, which was co-written by Park, and this new work will almost certainly please fans of his expressionistic (some would say slightly mad) approach to filmmaking. Notably, the film also has a female protagonist who drives the story.

This moody, stylistically left-field and unpredictably plotted drama savages modern local Korean politics right from the get go, as aspiring politician Jong-chan (Kim Joo-hyuk) and his weary-of-politics wife Yeon-hong (Son Ye-jin) see their tightly-run election campaign stumble when their freewheeling but secretive daughter Min-jin (Ji-Hoon Shin) vanishes overnight. Jong-chan is a former news anchor who is now looking to become a politician, and has secured the nomination for the Korea Party in the area of Daeson whilst going up against the lawmaker Noh Jae-soon (Kim Eui-song). Right away, the disappearance exposes fractures in the family and the political scene, as Jong-chan decides to press on campaigning, deeply disappointing his wife and putting his poll lead in jeopardy. Yeon-hong’s suspicions only grow when her probing into Min-Jin’s absence unearths disturbing revelations.

For one thing, her daughter lied about where she was going and who she was meeting that night. Jong-chan’s rival, Yeon-hong fears, would not be beneath destroying their campaign by abducting or harming their daughter. Min-Jin’s closest friend at school, from a notably lower social class, seems to have been the last person to see her alive, but is vague about why she has her friend’s blood on her plimsoles from that night. Then Yeon-hong breaks into her daughter’s email account, only to find that her daughter was being emailed leaked exams by her teacher, giving her an edge that helped her boost her grades. But how does any of this add up?

The more Yeon-hong digs, the more she begins to fear a political motive was involved, but it might have had less to do with disrupting Jong-chan’s campaign than protecting it instead. Intriguing though the final revelation is (in that it is a plausible scenario, but involves just enough circumstance to baffle and surprise you), it would be a stretch to say the clues to unlocking this mystery are scattered throughout the narrative in such a way that the final answer will provoke viewers to rethink everything they have seen. Instead, this is one of those films where the last ten minutes really explain everything in a blood-soaked, anguished howl; and this may be unsatisfying to some. It is tempting to see some echoes of the plot of Park’s Oldboy here, in that both films feature labyrynthine plots that conceal the real mastermind behind more than a few red herrings or through simple denial of facts to the audience. Still, the film offers a fast pace and tells its story with some stylistic flair and eye-catching mise-en-scene: from the use of variable slo-mo in flashback sequences, a vivid colour pallette, and some gritty and well-executed moments of violence. In fact, there is something nicely erratic about the film; a slightly elevated melodramatic and surreal tone that doesn’t stray too far from keeping the film realistic, but isn’t exactly ‘normal’ either.  The soundtrack is appealingly eclectic too, in part informed by Min-Jin’s musical tastes and her (hidden from her parents) sideline as an amateur vocalist and guitarist. Son Ye-jin’s performance anchors it all, as the increasingly determined- maybe even deranged- mother on a mission.

Review: 2016’s Korean Film Festival foregrounds women in Korean cinema with strong gala opener The Truth Beneath
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