Kyoung-mi Lee’s surreal political thriller The Truth Beneath arrives with perfect timing. Not only is the US Presidential election spiralling ever further into the hell dimension, but Lee’s own South Korea is dealing with the bombshell that their Prime Minister, Park Geun-hye, is suspected of having participated in ‘shamanic rituals,’ having apparently been manipulated by the shadowy daughter of a cult leader.
Then again, if Kyoung-mi’s film is at all accurate, South Korean politics is a pretty messed up place. Campaigning politicians are practically deified, presenting an airbrushed smile to the world while engaged in gangsterish deals behind the scenes. Wiretapping, shaming your opponent’s children and casual violence is de rigeur, not to mention the color-coded squads of synchronized dancer supporters strutting down the street like they’ve stepped out of West Side Story.
She shows us a world where image is everything and policy takes a distant back seat. So when TV personality turned politician Jong-chan’s (Ju-hyuk Kim) teenage daughter Kim Min-jin (Ji-Hoon Shin) goes missing on the first day of electoral campaigning, it’s an equally personal and political problem. As a couple of days pass with no sign of Min jin, his devoted wife Yeon-hong (Ye-jin Son) grows frustrated and anxious – the police are incompetent and her husband seems more concerned about the impact on voters than finding their daughter.
So Yeon-hong decides to play private detective and solve Minjin’s disappearance herself, unearthing an incredibly tangled thicket of mystery that’d make Raymond Chandler blush. Very quickly she realizes that her daughter isn’t quite the bookish angel she made herself out to be (she’s in a kickass avant-garde punk band, for one thing), and that her apparent domestic bliss is mired in a web of misery, blackmail, violence and cruelty.
Trying to work out the precise shape of this web occupies much of the film’s run time, and to be honest, a good bit of time afterwards, too. Practically everyone is harbouring dark secrets and the plot is stuffed full of clandestine meetings of puzzling significance. Or, to put it bluntly, there were large swathes of The Truth Beneath during which I had no idea what the hell was going on.
This is partially because the film serves up bit plot twists roughly every 15 minutes or so, partially because crucial information is conveyed through looking at computer and phone screens, only parts of which are subtitled from Korean to English, and partially because Kyoung-me’s directorial style occasionally skews towards the gimmicky.
The film casually slips into surreal dream sequences that allude to various other parts of the plot, apparently contrasting the poetic and realistic version of the same events. On top of that, there are constant flashbacks, each with their own style and special effects depending on which character’s memory we’re travelling through.
Kyoung-mi’s big bag of directorial tricks (raindrops frozen in mid-air, slow motion schoolgirls covered in blood, arty long-shots, flowery fairytale forests etc.), combined with rigorously composed traditional shots in the ‘normal’ scenes ensures that The Truth Beneath is never boring. But all that razzle dazzle comes at the cost of a coherent plot, which obviously impacts upon emotional engagement. After all, if you don’t know why the characters are doing what they’re doing, why care?
To its credit, The Truth Beneath‘s jigsaw pieces eventually form a full picture, but it was only after some post-film drinks with fellow attendees that we assembled a a timeline of who was betraying who (and why).
Aside from all that, the film boasts a bevvy of great performances, most notably Ye-jin Son’s mom-on-the-edge, who goes on a believable journey from submissive housewife to stungun wielding, self mutilating avatar of revenge and destruction. It’s memorable stuff, especially when she goes properly off the deep end and gets a crazy Liam Neeson-in-Taken glint in her eyes.
For my money, Korean cinema is at its best when you’re staring at the screen, brow furrowed as you wonder where on earth they’re going with all this. The Truth Beneath serves that up in spades, barraging the viewer with indelible images, sudden acts of extreme violence and visual trickery until you’re tapping the mat and croaking “please Kyoung-mi.. no more.” I just wish it was a little clearer about the story it was telling.
The Truth Beneath is stuffed with powerful visuals and clever cinematic tricks, but it's too narratively tangled to really invest in.