The eleventh of the London Korean Film Festivals organised by the KCCUK opened on Thursday with a little sprinkling of stardust. Jung Woo-sung, who electrified the audience during the 2014 festival where he was the headline attraction, came to the opening night as just a regular guy wanting to watch a movie. But that didn’t enable him to escape the spotlight alongside director Kim Seong-soo, both of whom would be on duty the following night for a discussion at SOAS and the screening of Asura.
The main event though was Lee Kyoung-mi’s The Truth Beneath, the opening film of the festival and of the strand of women directors. What do we expect from a film directed from a woman? Well, we shall find out over the course of the festival. We know that there can be some real stunners – for example the amazing Girl Next Door by July Jung that was the highlight of the 2014 festival.
But if one were to stereotype, what one might expect? Maybe a film focusing on family, on emotions and relationships. So a story about a mother searching for her daughter who has mysteriously disappeared perhaps fits this stereotype. But throw in a context of a bitterly fought election campaign full of dirty tricks and you start realising that maybe you shouldn’t start trying to put things into boxes. And add Park Chan-Wook as a co-writer – and all the things he’s known for in his storylines – and you have a movie that has so much to enjoy that the gender of the director is irrelevant.
At the centre of the movie is the relationship between mother and daughter. We only see them together for the first five minutes, as the mother is preparing food for her husband’s election campaign team meeting, and as the daughter Minjin is preparing to set off for the evening – we don’t know where. She says she will be late. And of course she doesn’t return at all.
Actually, if there is one one moment which tells you that there is a woman at the helm it’s the scene soon after Minjin’s disappearance. Her mother is in a room with the political campaign team. She is sitting at a computer, making intelligent suggestions as to what to do next. The others in the room, all men in suits, sit around lazily but with an air of casual superiority. Any suggestion she makes has cold water poured on it. Get back to the kitchen and make some more of that nice kimbap, they seem to be saying both with their words and body language. The slap-down is painful and feels almost physical. From this moment the mother knows she is on her own. And she has some serious barriers of lies, deceit and hostility to overcome.
As the mother tries to pull together the movements of her daughter (she can’t rely on the police as they seem to be in the pocket of her husband’s political rival) we find out how little she knew about her daughter’s life at school. Minjin has erected a barrier of deception between her and her mother, preventing her from knowing the difficulties or her daily life at school. As the mother investigates further, deceptions get peeled away and more and more unpleasant truths are revealed. She gets to know her daughter better only when the daughter is no longer there.
All of the above plot summary provides the ingredients for an entertaining enough film. Where director Lee makes a difference is in her interesting narrative style: dialogue which develops the plot, providing information about Minjin’s life or last known movements, play over the soundtrack: you look to associate the words being spoken with the person speaking them, and you realise there is a disconnect. What we are seeing has shifted subtly from what we are hearing. This rather unsettling experience is amplified when we get little flashbacks. “How’s your hand?” someone asks the mother. Oh. What happened to her hand? we wonder. Has she got RSI from going through all her daughter’s emails? But then we get a flashback to a scene the previous day showing the very unexpected way the injury was sustained.
Son Ye-jin is superlative as the woman who transforms from supportive wife through amateur detective to avenging angel, while perhaps belatedly becoming more of a mother on the way. It is sometimes said that to excel in a man’s world a woman has to prove herself on so many fronts. Son Ye-Jin certainly does, and maybe this is another intended message of the director.
Lee Kyoung-mi (이경미) The Truth Beneath (비밀은 없다, 2016)