Coin Locker Girl (차이나타운, Han Jun-hee, 2015)

coin locker girl posterFamily in Korean films, unlike those say of Japan, has always been something of a double edged sword. Coin Locker Girl (차이나타운, AKA Chinatown) takes the idea of “family” and twists it around, bites into it to test its veracity, and offers a wry smirk as the metal begins to bend. Set in Incheon’s Chinatown, Han Jun-hee’s noirish thriller sends its heroine down a series of dark alleyways as she both fights and fights to retain her humanity whilst inhabiting an extremely inhuman world.

Il-young (Kim Go-eun) was found, covered in blood, hidden away in a coin locker, an abandoned child with no clue as to her identity or that of the woman who gave birth to her. Named and taken in by a collection of beggars at the station, she began her life as a street rat though not, perhaps, entirely unloved or friendless. As a young child she was then taken by gangsters working for a fearless female gang boss known as “Mom” (Kim Hye-soo). Mom is not one to suffer fools and feels no compunction in getting rid of those no longer useful to her. She soon puts Il-young to work, pamphleteering, begging, and eventually debt collecting as she grows older under Mom’s watchful eyes. By the time Il-young is almost come of age, she has an older brother and a sister as well as a younger brother with learning difficulties whom Mom still looks after despite her otherwise unsentimental approach to life.

The trouble starts when Mom sends Il-young to collect a debt from the young son of a man who’s skipped the country. Seok-hyeon (Park Bo-gum) is not like the typical clients she’s met before. He opens his door, invites her in, even offers to feed her before she leaves. Il-young finds all of this very strange. She’s never met anyone “nice” before and wonders what his angle is. Seok-hyeon, however, does not appear to have much of an angle aside from perhaps the usual one. Spending a bit of time with him, Il-young begins to develop certain feelings which see her swapping her Mom-style slacks and jackets for pretty summer dresses. Despite his son’s faith in him, Seok-hyeon’s father has not kept his end of the bargain and so Mom decides it’s time to call in the debt by offing Seok-hyeon and harvesting his organs. Il-young has a choice – between the woman she calls “Mom”, and a naive young man she has come to like though he has no place in her kill or be killed world.

One of the most attractive qualities about the young Il-young was that she didn’t exist. No birth certificate and no identity meant that she could be Mom’s to do with as she pleased. Consequently, adolescent Il-young has a more complicated relationship with her “Mom” than most young women but is also acutely aware of the debt of gratitude which is owed, the precariousness of her position, and the reality that she has nowhere else to go should she decide to try and break away from the world in which she has been raised. Never quite sure what her relationship to Mom is, Il-young has come to think of the other children in the same situations as siblings, but again cannot be sure that they feel the same.

Like many a good film noir, the tragedy lies in not completely closing off one’s heart as the harshness of the world dictates. Mom rejects those who are not useful and terminates those who have betrayed her with extreme prejudice, but despite herself she cannot destroy Il-young. Stepping back from her code, her orders are to let Il-young live, condemning her to a fate perhaps worse than death but alive all the same. Mom is betrayed by another child figure enacting a petty act of revenge, but her decision to let Il-young live is the one which threatens to condemn her. Having believed herself an unloved, unwanted child, Il-young is left with two terrible legacies of abandonment and the feeling that she will never leave that coin locker in which she has been trapped since birth. The cycle of maternal sacrifice continues, though Il-young has the opportunity to change her fate by taking charge of it, picking up where Mom left off but with greater compassion even within the confines of her still cruel world.


Screened at London Korean Film Festival 2017. Also screening at Manchester (11 Nov) and Glasgow (16 Nov).

Original trailer (English subtitles)

Come, Together (컴, 투게더, Shin Dong-il, 2017)

come, together posterToo fast, too loud, too bright. The pressure cooker society threatens to explode in Shin Dong-il’s sympathetic portrayal of one family’s period of crisis in Come, Together (컴, 투게더). When sorrows come they come not single spies but in battalions – redundancy (of several kinds), betrayal, anxieties academic and financial, the Parks have more than their fare share to deal with but the cumulative effect of their individual troubles quickly overwhelms their ordinary, middle-class existence, exposing the tiny fractures in its foundation hitherto papered over by chasing the dream of materialism.

From the outside the Parks are just like any typical middle-class family. They live in a nice apartment with a greenhouse balcony and plenty of space for three. Dad Beom-goo (Lim Hyung-guk) is a moderately successful salaryman, but his world collapses when he’s abruptly let go in the most insensitive of ways by his slimy boss. Mum Mi-yeong (Lee Hye-eun) is a credit card saleswoman who earns by commission and is well used to the hard sell. Teenage daughter Han-na (Chae Bin) has taken a year out to retake her university entrance exams but is now in limbo after not doing well enough to be accepted but having been ranked 18th on the waiting list, anxiously waiting to find out if enough people decide to decline the place she is so desperate to win.

Beom-goo losing his job of 18 years is not just humiliating and embarrassing, but as the family are already in huge debt it is also extremely worrying. As a middle-aged man, it’s unlikely Beom-goo is going to be able to find a comparable position in Korea’s competitive labour market where switching companies is still not the norm and most employees are hired right out of college. Having spent the last 18 years debasing himself to flatter his bosses, it’s galling in the least to realise he’s simply been replaced with a younger, cheaper employee he himself helped learn the ropes. Deprived of his breadwinner status, Beom-goo is supposed to be doing the housework but the boredom quickly gets to him and he spends most days lounging around in his pants lamenting his sorry state. That is until he meets the man from upstairs (Kim Jae-rok) who happens to be in a similar position and begins to lead Beom-goo astray before hinting at a much darker course for himself than the one he’s set Beom-goo on.

Mi-yeong is now the sole provider but her work is extremely stressful – not just the high pressure world of sales, but the bitchy, backstabbing atmosphere in the mostly female office. The job is to get people to sign up for credit cards they don’t really need and probably can’t afford, adding to the pressures of the consumerist society which have already landed the Parks in financial difficulty themselves. Mi-yeong is good at her job, she knows how to get people to sign on the dotted line but she’s also desperate enough to risk breaking the rules. When she’s undercut by a colleague whose situation she has misread, Mi-yeong takes it extremely personally, vowing revenge not just on the colleague but on the boss who refused to back her up and the client who betrayed her.

Mi-yeong’s rage and resentment are to have tragic, unforeseen consequences, threatening to deliver everything she’d dreamed of but at a terrible price. Han-na faces a similar dilemma as she finds herself staring at the list of 17 people in the queue in front of her and silently hoping some of them get hit by busses. The tense atmosphere at home only adds to Han-na’s stress levels as Beom-goo’s increasing impotence finds him playing father of the house like never before and deliberately undermining her sense of self esteem by repeatedly bringing up her failure to get into college. Unlike either of her parents, Han-na does at least have a positive influence in her life in the form of friend Yoo-gyeong (Lee Sang-hee), whom both her parents disapprove of because of her deliberate choice to live outside the mainstream.

Yoo-gyeong, though only in her early ‘20s, owns her own store selling leather bracelets and uses the proceeds to fund her free spirited lifestyle of taking off backpacking across whichever land takes her fancy. When Han-na says she wishes she could live like Yoo-gyeong, Yoo-gyeong bristles, insisting that she’d support whichever decision Han-na makes but that she ought to live her own life the way she wants rather than emulating someone else. Also, by way of an aside, she points out that people seem to assume she does exactly as she pleases but that’s not quite the case. In fact, it may be that Yoo-gyeong is, in a sense, forced to live a life outside of the mainstream simply by virtue of who she is and that her frequent flights to pastures new are a kind of escape or of running away from various social pressures at home.

Irrespective of whether or not they get what they thought it was they wanted, each is forced to reassess their way of living, realising that their relentless pursuit of material gain and the socially accepted definition of success has only made them miserable. Rather than continuing down the road to ruin, the Parks decide to choose happiness by simply dropping out, resetting their lives with the intention of doing what it is they want to do rather than what it is they think they’re supposed to. Waking up from a conformist delusion reawakens the freedom to embrace individual desires but it also restores the family to its previously happy state, released from the strain of modern life in favour of simpler, more essential pleasures.


Screened at the London Korean Film Festival 2017.

Original trailer (select English subtitles from captions menu)

The Chaser (추격자, Na Hong-jin, 2008)

The chaser movie posterWhen it comes to law enforcement in Korea (at least in the movies), your best bet may actually be other criminals or “concerned citizens” as the police are mostly to be found napping or busy trying to cover up for a previous mistake. The Chaser (추격자, Chugyeogja) continues this grand tradition in taking inspiration from the real life serial murder crime spree of Yoo Young-chul , eventually brought to justice in 2005 after pimps came together and got suspicious enough to make contact with a friendly police officer.

Former cop turned petty pimp Joong-ho (Kim Yun-seok) has a problem. His girls keep skipping out on their debts. Or so he thinks – rousing one of his last remaining “employees”, Mi-jin (Seo Young-hee), from her sickbed (and unbeknownst to him calling her away from her seven year old daughter), Joong-ho finds a phone belonging to a missing girl and realises the last number called is the same as the one he’s about to send Mi-jin off to. Suspicious, Joong-ho rediscovers his detective skills and notices this particular number all over his books. Thinking the john is kidnapping his girls to sell them on, Joong-ho hatches a plan to track Mi-jin and have a word with this bozo but unsurprisingly nothing goes to plan. Mi-jin has fallen into the grip of a vicious serial killer, Young-min (Ha Jung-woo), but may still be alive if only Joong-ho can find her in time.

Joong-ho is not a good guy. Maybe he’s not the worst of his kind but as a former law enforcement official turned unsentimental exploiter of women, Joong-ho is an unlikely saviour. His primary motivation is, unsurprisingly, commercial as the look of concern he gives to one of his ladies encountering a dangerous client betrays, the kind of irritation a taxi driver might display on noticing a large scratch on his expensive car rather than a recognition of the pain and suffering those cuts and bruises bear witness to. He never stops to consider that something untoward has befallen the missing women and is, in one sense, relieved when he thinks they’ve been sold on rather than just skipping out on him. Throughout his quest to find Mi-jin which sees him forming an unexpected paternal bond with her young daughter, Joong-ho begins to rediscover his humanity as he’s forced to confront the similarities between himself and this deranged psycho killer.

Like his real life counterpart, Young-min, is a sexually frustrated misogynist who begins his social revenge through killing off the wealthy before moving on to the less easily missed including local prostitutes which is what ultimately proves his downfall when the various area pimps begin to connect the dots. In actuality it turns out Young-min has previously been questioned in connection with a murder but was released due to lack of evidence. Likewise, this time around the police are not very interested in capturing him and Young-min is once again returned to society due to some political concerns which result in pressure from above. As if having charmed luck with the police weren’t enough, Young-min also exploits the other cornerstone of South Korean society – the church, through which he recruits his victims, subverting their trusting religiosity with his violent perversion.

For a film which largely lives on the chase, winding through the darkened, rain drenched backstreets of downtown Seoul, Na adds in plenty of twists and turns as the case proceeds down one dingy alleyway after another. Joong-ho’s gradual reawakening as a human being rather than cold blooded human trafficker is accompanied by the gradual reveal of his counterpart’s dangerous need for validation through violence but also by the realisation of his total powerlessness in the face of such a nebulous and faceless threat. The police won’t help (perhaps if they’d investigated those parking violations a little more assiduously all of this could have been avoided), the Church is just an ironic distraction, and the politicians are busy squabbling amongst themselves. Joong-ho is an unlikely figure of salvation, but he remains the last best hope for justice so long as he can avoid becoming that which he seeks.


Original trailer (English subtitles)

Our Love Story (연애담, Lee Hyun-ju, 2016)

cyaykwjucaav5frThe history of LGBT cinema in Korea is admittedly thin though recent years have seen an increase in big screen representation with an interest in exploring the reality rather than indulging in stereotypes. The debut feature from Lee Hyun-ju, Our Love Story (연애담, Yeonaedam), is among the first to chart the course of an ordinary romance between two women with all of the everyday drama that modern love entails. A beautiful, bittersweet tale of frustrated connection, Our Love Story is a realistic look at messy first love taking place under the snowy skies of Seoul.

Yoon-ju (Lee Sang-hee) is a busy fine arts graduate student working on her final project. Busy as she is, none of Yoon-ju’s friends can get their heads around her lack of interest in dating, but Yoon-ju is happy enough on her own and doesn’t get what all the fuss is about. Whilst perusing a local junk yard looking for interesting things for her art project, something unexpected catches her eye in the form of a young woman delivering magazines but after the woman completes her business she leaves Yoon-ju’s slightly stunned field of vision, presumably forever.

Because these things happen in a city, Yoon-ju runs into the same woman again in a convenience store where she is having trouble buying cigarettes because she’s forgotten her ID and the cashier is being pedantic about the rules. Coming to the rescue, Yoon-ju buys the cigarettes for her with her ID, which leads to the opportunity of sharing one outside. The mysterious woman is named Ji-soo (Ryu Sun-young) and works part-time at a nearby bar to which she invites Yoon-ju if she happens to fancy a drink of an evening. Yoon-ju doesn’t drink, particularly, but convinces some friends to accompany her to to Ji-soo’s bar – a plan which backfires when they drink too much and argue with each other causing a scene. The two women don’t get much of an opportunity to chat and it all seems like it might end there with Yoon-ju heading home to bed only to receive an unexpected phone call from Ji-soo inviting her over for a late night drinking session.

So begins Yoon-ju’s first romance, and Ji-soo’s 78th as she later jokes. The first night slips into the first day and before long the pair have established a happy domesticity but their original euphoria is short lived as Ji-soo is due to be moving back to her hometown to live with her recently widowed father for a while. The relationship also has adverse effects on Yoon-ju’s life as she begins to neglect her art project and lets her colleagues down by forgetting important meetings, while other events leave her questioning if Ji-soo is really as committed to Yoon-ju as Yoon-ju is to her.

After Ji-soo moves back home, the pair make sure to meet up every so often either in Ji-soo’s hometown of Incheon or in Seoul but there’s an undeniable change in their relationship aside from the distance. In the city, Ji-soo had been outgoing and unafraid but in Incheon she’s a completely different person, closed off and permanently anxious. Ji-soo’s father is a more conservative and religious type who has no idea that his daughter is gay and still expecting her to get married, preferably as soon as possible. Worried that Ji-soo “does not date” he sets her up with a family friend and she has little choice but to play along even if she’s not intending to let it get anywhere. Yoon-ju’s first visit occurs while Ji-soo’s father is away, but even so Ji-soo is uncomfortable with having her in the house. When her father turns up unexpectedly one day while Yoon-ju is there, Ji-soo describes her as “a friend” and makes a point of answering all of Yoon-ju’s questions for her in case she lets something slip.

Hurt and confused, spending time in Incheon becomes a painful experience for Yoon-ju considering the permanently jumpy Ji-soo doesn’t even want her father to know she smokes, let alone anything else he might not approve of. Earlier on the relationship, Yoon-ju made the decision to confide in an old friend from her hometown and found him broadly supportive, once he got over the surprise. Ji-soo, more experienced, warns Yoon-ju that she’ll lose friends if she isn’t careful. This Yoon-ju finds out to her cost when she decides to try talking to her roommate about her troubles with Ji-soo as even someone she felt close to and had trusted suddenly rejects her. Realising you’ve placed your trust in someone who wasn’t worthy of it is a terrible feeling, but it isn’t just familial opposition the two women will be facing if they decide to make a go of things together, even in the big city.

Post Incheon, awkwardness grows and the distance deepens prompting one to fight back and the other to retreat but eventually Ji-soo appears to make her choice in way which seems cuttingly final in its coldness. Later trying to fix what she broke, Ji-soo again goes about things in an inadvisable way, still only superficially committed and unable to fully connect on a deeper level. Ending on an ambiguous, bittersweet note which seems to offer either hope or the despairing vision of an ever repeating cycle of pain, Our Love Story is a beautifully nuanced and interestingly composed addition to the Korean indie scene finally bringing a very ordinary romance to the cinema screen in all of its everyday melodrama.


Reviewed at the 2016 London Korean Film Festival.

Clip from halfway through the film (English subtitles)

The Phantom Detective (탐정 홍길동: 사라진 마을, Jo Sung-hee, 2016)

su0mhpqReview of Jo Sung-hee’s The Phantom Detective (탐정 홍길동: 사라진 마을, Tamjung Honggildong: Sarajin Maeul) first published by UK Anime Network.


Comic books and film noir are, in many ways, a match made in heaven. Tough guys lurking in the shadows, larger than life villains and an ever present sense of the strangeness of criminality, lend themselves particularly well to the extremes of both genres which is why the combination is not exactly an uncommon one. In The Phantom Detective , director Jo Sung-hee adds an extra layer of meta textuality in naming the amnesiac hero Hong Gil-dong which is both the Korean “John Doe” and the name of a legendary Robin Hood figure from the 16th century. Like his namesake, this Hong Gil-dong is a preternaturally gifted detective with a faultless memory and an almost supernatural ability to stay ahead of the game, but he’s also a classic film noir hero with a damaged past and hollow heart…

In an alternate 1980s Korea, Hong Gil-dong (Lee Je-hoon) is an ace detective about to break a trafficking ring, which is righteous enough, but he also has another motive – these men may be able to offer him a clue to tracking down a target he’s been chasing for over 20 years. A one eyed man, Kim Byung-duk (Park Geun-hyung), contributed to Gil-dong’s origin story by murdering his mother right in front of him. At least, he thinks so – Gil-dong can’t remember anything about that day save for the visions he sees in his nightmares. In fact, he doesn’t even know his real name or who he really is.

When he finally gets to Byung-duk’s location, Gil-dong discovers he’s already been kidnapped by someone else leaving his two young granddaughters, Dong-yi (Roh Jeong-eui) and Mal-soon (Kim Ha-na), all alone. Taking off with the kids in tow, Gil-dong vows to track down “grandpa” but still has revenge in his heart. As the investigation progresses Gil-dong finds himself getting involved with the strange residents of a tiny town who may be about to fall victim to a dastardly doomsday plan engineered by a shady cult leader…

Ever since his mother’s death, Gil-dong has been unable to sleep thanks to constant nightmares and has lost the capacity for fear and empathy (qualities which serve him well in his line of work). Fiendishly clever, Gil-dong also has a sweet tooth and a sarcastic personality but despite his protestations, usually does the just thing when comes down to a straight choice. Byung-duk’s adorable granddaughters pose something of a problem for him as he begins to warm to their straightforward earnestness, yet his revenge rests in killing their beloved grandfather to avenge his mother’s death. The kids quickly take to Gil-dong, for some reason believing in his essential goodness. Dong-yi follows him around like a deputy detective, meticulously noting everything down in her notebook, whereas Mal-soon has figured out Gil-dong’s talent for deception but hilariously almost blows the gang’s cover on several occasions through her total lack of investigatory acumen.

Through investigating his lead on Byung-duk, Gil-dong hopes to recover his own memories of his early life and the mother he only remembers in his nightmares. The path he finds himself on is a dark one leading straight towards a powerful cult populated by fascism fetish sociopaths. Sure that the “New World is Coming”, the cult have planned a large scale event which threatens the lives of most of the residents of a small, strange town. Now Gil-dong has several reasons to get to the bottom of this long standing mystery ranging from his own desire for answers and revenge to saving the lives of these ordinary people and making sure no one else comes under threat.

Taking inspiration from the comic book world, The Phantom Detective makes use of highly saturated color schemes and deliberately artificial looking backgrounds. Though the approach remains bright and colourful for much of the film which adds to its slightly surreal atmosphere, there’s still ample room for noir with faces cast in shadow, light striking glasses so as to eerily block out the eyes, and Gil-dong’s classic detective outfit and occasional weary voiceover. The pulpy plot doesn’t worry too much about internal consistency, but blusters along well enough on its own even if coasting on Gil-dong’s wisecracking tough guy antics as he unexpectedly bonds with the two plucky little girls temporarily in his care. Cute and funny but also filled with innovative action sequences, The Phantom Detective acts as a worthy secondary origin story for its titular hero whose return will be eagerly awaited!


Reviewed at the 2016 London Korean Film Festival.

International trailer (English subtitles)

One Way Trip (글로리데이, Choi Jeong-yeol, 2016)

one-way-trip-posterReview of Choi Jeong-yeol’s One Way Trip first published by UK Anime Network.


Young men just trying to do the right thing often end up losing out in the long run – so it is for the four best friends at the centre of Choi Jeong-yeol’s One Way Trip (글로리데이, AKA Glory Day). Caught right on the liminal divide between adolescence and adulthood, each of the four has a different path set before him, not entirely of their own choosing. De facto leader Young-bi (Ji Soo) seems the most directionless of the four but as the only one with a driving license he’s found an old banger of a van and got the guys together for one last road trip before Sang-woo (Suho) enlists in the military. Joined by city councilman’s son Ji-gong (Ryoo Joon-Yeol) and Doo-man (Kim Hee-Chan), a reluctant baseball player, the boys take off for the last real trip of their adolescent lives.

Things do not go to plan as the opening sequence features the guys furiously running away from the police, more worried about their parents finding out than any more serious consequences, but tragedy strikes when Sang-woo is knocked over in a hit and run accident. With Sang-woo unconscious in the hospital, the remaining three guys find themselves locked up on assault charges which later graduate murder. How did their peaceful trip turn out like this?

Told largely through flashbacks explaining both the events of that night and the guys lives, One Way Trip examines the effect of a traumatic incident on each of the boys as they find their friendship coming under increasing pressure. Hanging around near the harbour, the guys spot a couple having a domestic dispute in a nearby car before the man drags the woman outside and proceeds to accuse her of having an affair whilst becoming increasingly violent. Headstrong Young-bi decides to intervene but goes too far in picking a fight with the guy while the woman gets herself to safety. When the violent husband falls into a nearby boat, the guys get scared and run off but the battered wife has already called the police who wind up chasing them through the town.

Panicking in the police station, distraught Young-bi gets himself into even more trouble sending their case straight up to the detectives. Though originally sympathetic, the police change their tune when it turns out that the woman involved is a high profile TV news reader. In an attempt to protect her reputation, she refuses to back the boys’ story and implicates them in the murder of her husband. The police, not overly interested in the finer details of the case, want a speedy resolution – a desire which is only echoed from further up where head office is getting pressure from the media.

These are all nice, ordinary kids who’ve never been in any kind of trouble before but suddenly they’re being encouraged to turn on each other and engineer the best possible outcome for themselves as individuals. Ji-gong’s mother (Moon Hee-kyung) is a prim woman most worried about what the neighbours will think, not to mention the impact on her husband’s political career. Doo-man’s father (Yoo Ha-bok) is even more panicked than his son and immediately starts making every conceivable kind of fuss at the police station, including attempted bribery. Young-bi, by contrast, has no one to speak for him as the only responsible adult is his older brother (Kim Dong-wan) – his father is already in jail. To the other parents, the answer is obvious, blame it on the no good delinquent their “nice” kid has been lead astray by and forget about the whole thing.

Though these boys are almost men, they have very little control over their own lives which continue to be dictated by parental expectation. Ji-gong’s overbearing mother locks him in the house to try and force him to study while Doo-man’s father ignores his pleas that he can’t stand playing baseball and is sick of all the other players resentment because they know he’s only on the team because his father put him there. Young-bi has no firm parental input but his feelings about his family circumstances are what lead him to try and help a woman in peril, as well as the reason he loses his temper so quickly. Sang-woo, the most blameless among the boys, has only his grandmother whom he wanted to spare a life of hardship by serving in the military followed by a solid government guaranteed job afterwards.

Fear and external pressures start to work their magic on the three previously innocent guys who thought they were doing something good but have ended up paying the price. Heartbreak and betrayal are the order of the day as money, power, and influence will always win out over justice, goodness and friendship. Injustice is the force that governs the world, Young-bi thought he was doing the right thing by coming to the aid of a woman under attack only for everyone else to tell him he should have just minded his own business and not gotten involved. Bookended scenes of the four guys together having fun on the beach only reinforce the stark contrast between their youthful innocence, naively believing in friendship and the essential goodness of helping others, and their post-trip awakening to the self-centred indifference of the adult world.


Reviewed at the 2016 London Korean Film Festival.

International trailer:

The Truth Beneath (비밀은 없다, Lee Kyoung-mi, 2016)

10_06_15__574b920705d42Politics 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)