A small-town policewoman unfairly held back by a traumatic past is embroiled in a complicated case of distorted realities in Christine Ko’s twisty, B-movie thriller, The Woman in the White Car (하얀 차를 탄 여자, Hayan Chaleul Tan Yeoja). Alluding to a novel which is mentioned in the film and both clue and red herring simultaneously, the title may actually be a minor spoiler but is also neatly allusive in its sense of mystery which at the same time proves mildly reductive even as we ask ourselves who such a woman may be.
The film opens, however, with a silver car which has a large dent to its front bumper arriving at speed at a hospital where the driver, Do-kyung (Jung Ryeo-won), pulls another woman she calls sister out of the passenger seat while trying to get the attention of medical staff explaining that the woman has been stabbed by an abusive partner, Jung-man. All of that is obviously very distressing but when policewoman Hyun-ju (Lee Jung-eun) arrives on the scene she is immediately alerted to what seem to be inconsistencies in Do-kyung’s story some of which could possibly be chalked up to shock along with the revelation that Do-kyung has been diagnosed with schizophrenia and her recollections of events may be unreliable.
Then again as Hyun-ju says, just because Do-kyung has schizophrenia it does not mean there is no truth in her testimony, just as it does not mean that anyone else with no such condition is necessarily telling the truth. Identifying with her on some level, Hyun-ju tries to tease out the hidden meaning behind Do-kyung’s words to unlock an objective reality but is also mindful of the possibility that Do-kyung may actually be completely lucid and playing them all for fools. The plot thickens when it is realised that the woman in the silver car is not Do-kyung’s sister Min-kyung as she had claimed, but an otherwise unidentified passenger whose origins they do not know further casting doubt on Do-kyung’s version of events along with the existence or not of prime suspect Jung-man.
As she had received the call about the incident, Hyun-ju had been having a meal with her naive assistant Young-jae who had complained how boring their lives were as small-town police officers while Hyun-ju had even insisted on finishing her dinner before leaving for the hospital believing it couldn’t really be that urgent. On witnessing her talent for investigating, he asks her why she didn’t leave to pursue a more fulfilling career elsewhere only for her to explain that she stayed to look after a father we later learn to be abusive whose cutting criticism eroded her confidence in seeking a better life. All the women are in fact similarly constrained, but eventually fighting back against those who are preventing them from taking full control over their lives and in some cases creating a narrative that allows them to do so while claiming their freedom.
Ko piles twist onto twist through a series of unreliable narrators each giving contradictory versions of events but each in their own small way hinting at greater truths which eventually present themselves to Hyun-ju leaving her with a dilemma in solving a mystery but wondering if it’s better to let it rest and each of the women, herself included, go free. Switching aspect ratios and colour grading to present different versions of reality through flashback and thought experiment, Ko places material clues in each of the stories to act as tiny anchors while setting the tale at a creepy mountain lodge in the middle of nowhere filled with gothic uncertainty and almost chilling loneliness. Accompanied by an overtly B-movie score, the film certainly indulges, with pleasure, in a series of genre cliches from mental illness to unreliable narrators, blood in the snow, and dangerous mountain curves but is finally anchored in a more certain reality unlocked by a detective’s unexpected empathy even if that same empathy leaves her vulnerable to a more literal kind of deceit. “I was just saving myself” one of the women admits, speaking for all taking their destiny into their own hands and reclaiming their freedom in the knowledge that only they can do so.
Original trailer (English subtitles)