Director: Lee Kyoung-Mi
Writer: Lee Kyoung-Mi
Cast: Son Ye-Jin, Kim Ju-Hyeok, Kim So-Hee, Shin Ji-Hoon, Choi Yu-Hwa, Kim Min-Jae, Park Jin-Woo, Moon Young-Dong, Jung Do-Won, Jang Joon-Nyoung
Running Time: 102 min.
By Paul Bramhall
There’s been a refreshing surge of female talent in Korean cinema during recent years, particularly behind the camera. Movies like Shin Su-won’s Madonna, and Jeong Joo-ri’s A Girl at my Door, are arguably highpoints of the country’s output in the post-2010 era, and in 2015 the director of Crush and Blush, Lee Kyoung-mi, returned with her sophomore feature. Titled The Truth Beneath, Kyoung-mi’s second feature sees her step away from the black comedy tropes of her well received debut, and delve into what, on the surface at least, appears to be a kidnap drama.
Kyoung-mi notably worked on the script for Park Chan-wook’s penultimate chapter in his Vengeance Trilogy, with 2005’s Sympathy for Lady Vengeance. The iconic director was suitably impressed enough that he stepped into the producers chair for the first time to finance her debut, Crush and Blush, and also contributed to the script. In a continued reversal of their original roles, Chan-wook also contributes to the script for The Truth Beneath, as does his regular collaborator Jeong Seo-kyeong, who also worked on Sympathy for Lady Vengeance, as well as the auteurs latest The Handmaiden.
The Truth Beneath is anchored by a performance from popular actress Son Ye-jin, star of The Pirates, and most recently an unfortunate turn in the abysmal China and Korea co-production Bad Guys Always Die. Thankfully here any previous mishaps are more than made up for, and much like Kyoung-mi did for Gong Hyo-jin in Crush and Blush, here the she also coaxes out what could well be considered a career best performance from Ye-jin. Playing the wife of a political candidate campaigning for an upcoming election, her world is turned upside down when their teenage daughter goes missing with just over 2 weeks to election day.
The husband, played by Kim Joo-hyuk (Confidential Assignment), is understandably thrown into a panic. However it’s not the first time for the daughter to play truant, and when his campaign advisors suggest that they keep the disappearance under wraps for at least a couple of days, much to Ye-jin’s dismay he decides to follow their advice. So the stage is set for a dark drama about a family dealing with a missing daughter, set against the political climate of the campaign trail. The Truth Beneath looks to deliver a solid outing for the genre it sets the expectation of falling under, however once Ye-jin decides to start looking into her daughters disappearance herself, it soon becomes clear that we’re going to be getting something much more.
If any comparisons could be made, Kyoung-mi’s latest feels like a less sweat drenched variant of Tetsuya Nakashima’s The World of Kanako. Just like Nakashima framed events from the perspective of the missing Kanako’s father, played with an unhinged intensity by Koji Yakusho, here the perspective is switched to the viewpoint of the mother. While a parent looking for their missing child is a well-worn genre trope, the real comparison point is the unexpected truths which begin to bubble to the surface, which soon see their lead characters freefalling down a rabbit hole of madness and violence.
The Truth Beneath is really about Ye-jin’s transformation from a well-to-do wife of a politician, to a vengeance filled force of nature who emits a palpable sense of danger. The tone that Kyoung-mi establishes occasionally echoes Sympathy for Lady Vengeance, as we get brief moments that bring to mind Chan-wook’s earlier work, indicating a flair for storytelling that’s evidently always been there. As an audience, watching the past slowly being unwrapped through the eyes of Ye-jin constantly keeps us guessing as to her mental state. There are times when the narrative appears to veer into delirium, which peaks with Ye-jin visiting a shaman, in the hopes that supernatural forces can point her in the right direction.
Credit should also go to Shin Ji-hoon, who plays the missing daughter. A multi-talented performer, Ji-hoon is both a K-pop singer and a figure skater, and here makes her acting debut. Despite her lack of experience in the acting field, she delivers a stand-out performance. As the missing daughter her character initially seems to be a minor one, however as Ye-jin looks to uncover more about her daughter’s life outside the walls of their family home, she gets several extended flashback scenes which are crucial to the narrative. The nature of these flashback scenes effectively portray everything that Ye-jin had, intentionally or not, being living in ignorance of, and the truth found in them is what triggers her subtly powerful transformation.
The editing compliments the trauma of Ye-jin’s mental state through a number of different techniques, from shots played in reverse to fast paced intercuts, the sense of confusion and panic is truly felt, and is offset by the quietly static shots of Ye-jin staring at herself in the mirror. Indeed one of the biggest strengths of The Truth Beneath is the way it looks, from the way shots are framed to the set design, it’s a sumptuous affair and one that’s always reflective of what’s taking place in the narrative. Even small details, such as Ye-jin’s choice to wear a colourful dress to a funeral, carry with them a strong visual impact. It’s rare to see a movie that has an aesthetic so closely tied to the story its telling.
If any criticism could be made, it’s that the tonal shifts occasionally take some unexpectedly wide swings. Specifically relating to a couple of instances were comedy is injected into such serious subject matter, it’s not that the attempts at humour miss the mark, but more a question of if they really belong in such a scenario. However, these random opportunities could well be argued to add to the slightly off-kilter feel that’s increasingly evoked as proceedings progress, and again bring to mind the dark humor of Park Chan-wook’s Sympathy for Lady Vengeance. The only difference here is that the subtlety is dropped for a more in-your-face approach, but I have a feeling it could be exactly what Kyoung-mi intended.
By the time events barrel towards a suitably surprising conclusion, the narrative throws the past and the present on the path of a head on collision, leaving all of the truth that had been hidden for so long laid bare on the table. How each of the main characters react to it is what makes the closing scenes so tense, as violence, regret, and ambition collide in a way that ensures we’re never certain of what’s going to happen from one second to the next. The Truth Beneath doesn’t bale out during its conclusion, forcing everyone accountable for the events which have been uncovered to face the consequences of their actions, and it’s the better movie for it.
It’s been a while since a Korean movie has delivered that real punch-in-the-gut feel which leaves you reeling once the credits roll. In 2003 OldBoy did it, in 2009 No Mercy did it, and in 2015 I can say The Truth Beneath did it. Whatever genre Kyoung-mi decides to delve into next, her talent for being able to juggle so many of them within a single narrative ensures that it’ll be one to watch. From a political drama, to a kidnap thriller, to a mysterious whodunit, to a psychological suspense, Kyoung-mi navigates Ye-jin through all of them, with the audience never far behind. There were a lot of highs in Korean cinema during 2015, and The Truth Beneath is right up there with them, maybe even at the top.
Paul Bramhall’s Rating: 8.5/10