Politics in South Korea has never been exactly drama free, though recent times have seen a multitude of storms engulf its top brass running from the national to the personal. Frequent Park Chan-wook collaborator Lee Kyoung-mi’s followup to her acclaimed 2008 debut Crush and Blush, The Truth Beneath (비밀은 없다, Bimileun Eobda) begins as if it’s going fit into the ‘70s dark political thriller mould but gradually shifts gear to present both a bleak family drama and the story of one woman’s descent into the near madness of grief as she attempts to uncover the true circumstances behind her private tragedy even as it plays out on a national stage.
Married to a prominent candidate in a tightly contested electoral race, Yeon-hong (Son Ye-jin) is perfect first lady material – save that she’s from an inconvenient home town. Two weeks before the big day, Yeon-hong’s daughter Min-jin (Shin Ji-hoon) does not return from school as expected which, aside from the obvious distress, is not ideal for her father as his political campaign has largely been run on Min-jin’s face and the slogan “I will protect your children”. Jong-chan (Kim Ju-hyeok), Min-jin’s ambitious father, is reluctant to report her disappearance for fear it will hurt him politically and, after all, Min-jin has “disappeared” at times before. Yeon-hong is deeply worried and unable to understand her husband’s indifference to their daughter’s mysterious absence. As time passes, Yeon-hong steps up her investigation becoming ever more suspicious of those around her.
On the surface of things, Yeon-hong had the ideal life – a wealthy, handsome husband, and a nicely turned out, studious teenage daughter. The first glimpse we catch of them is a celebration of the campaign’s launch in which Yeong-hong is furiously cooking away – a motif which is to be repeated with an entirely different sense of celebration sometime later. Yet there’s something slightly artificial about the setup even in its beginning as the conversation between the men takes on a barbed, guarded quality while Min-jin lies to her mother even whilst pledging to straighten up now that the campaign is in full swing.
The more Yeong-hong investigates, the more she realises how much of the life she’d been living was careful artifice. Min-jin had gone off the rails before, though perhaps no more than any other teenage girl and given her father’s position, she’d been under a considerable amount of strain. The “friend” Min-jin had claimed to be meeting does not seem to exist and on visiting her school, Yeong-hong finds out that Min-jin had been ostracised by the other girls, even experiencing violent treatment at their hands.
Min-jin had, in fact, eventually embraced her outsider status by forming a performance art influenced, punk inspired rock band with a similarly “uncool” girl, Mi-ok. Mi-ok may have been one of the last people to have contact with Min-jin before her disappearance and quickly becomes a person of interest in Yeong-hong’s investigations but whatever it is she’s hiding, it’s clear that there was a whole side of Min-jin’s life that her mother was entirely unaware of.
As Yeong-hong becomes increasingly desperate, she starts entertaining the idea of conspiracy. Her first thoughts turn to her husband’s rival, Noh, an unscrupulous man who may just be capable of kidnapping Jong-chang’s poster girl in order to punch a hole through his opponent’s ill advised slogan by demonstrating that he can’t even protect his own child, let alone anyone else’s. Then again, how far would her husband be prepared to go in the quest for power? Would his campaign team really kidnap his own daughter to cast suspicion on Noh and win public sympathy? Jong-chang’s ongoing indifference could be easily explained if he already knows the score, but the more Yeong-hong finds out the more she begins to doubt everything she thought she knew about her family.
Son Ye-jin turns in a career making performance in capturing Yeon-hong’s increasingly volatile emotional state. A once elegant political wife, Yeon-hong’s disintegration is manifested in her untidy hair and progressively relaxed dress sense as she becomes ever surer that there is something larger at play than a runaway teen. Yeon-hong defiantly rejects the entirety of her experience through her appearance at a funeral wearing a bright and colourful floral dress almost as if demanding to be seen, remembered, and addressed. No longer will she remain Jong-chang’s silent partner, Yeon-hong’s grief-stricken, maternal fury requires answers and will not rest until the whole of the truth is known.
Lee’s composition is simply stunning making frequent use of dissolves, superimpositions, and a subtle floating of time periods to underline Yeon-hong’s precarious mental state. When Yeon-hong discovers a particularly unpleasant truth, the previously balanced camera suddenly slides into a canted angle, leaving the ordered world of a political thriller behind for a new kind of noir-ish murkiness. Yeon-hong is, literally, unbalanced – wrong footed and wild as she enters into a desperate quest to understand not only the truth beneath the events which have engulfed her, but the essential truth beneath her life. Playing out almost like an inverted The World of Kanako, the Truth Beneath is a similarly bleak tale filled with coldness and duplicity, yet its distressing finale carries with it a fragmentary warmth and the slightest glimpse of hope in the embrace of a motherless child and childless mother.
Reviewed at the 2016 London Korean Film Festival.
International trailer (English subtitles)