Monday, June 27, 2016

Review: THE TRUTH BENEATH Unearths Dark, Stylish Mysteries


By Pierce Conran

A great year for Korean genre cinema keeps getting better with the release of Lee Kyoung-mi's long time coming sophomore feature, the riveting The Truth Beneath, a sumptuous and anarchic political thriller, kidnap drama, suspenseful whodunnit and kaleidoscopic descent into delirium. Falling between the stylistic panache of Park Chan-wook's Lady Vengeance (2005), on which she was a scripter and assistant director, and the manic paranoia of Tetsuya Nakashima's Confessions (2010), Lee's latest features a career-best performance by Son Ye-jin in a narrative that occasionally gets mired in tonal vagaries.

Son plays Yeon-hong, who stands by her husband's side as he enters a highly contested election for the national assembly. With just 15 days until election day, the couple's daughter disappears and when Yeon-hong delves into the mystery, she begins to uncover some terrible secrets.

The Truth Beneath kicks off with a high degree of polish and a picture-perfect political couple sauntering into the spotlight. Yeon-hong prepares delectable local dishes at their home on the eve of a campaign rally but there's also something off about the scene. The dark colors bleeding across the frame hint at something sinister, as does reading between the lines of the pleasantries exchanged between the campaign staffers.

Much like recent Korean thrillers such as Veteran and Inside Men, Lee's work paints a casually disquieting picture of politics and the upper class. However, rather than continue to follow along the same tracks, once the couple's daughter disappears, the film quickly turns into an altogether different kind of beast. The mystery surrounding the girl's whereabouts may be the driving point of the plot but the real crux of the story is how all these events add to the deteriorating mental condition of Yeon-hong and her subsequent evolution into a renegade.


One of Korea's top stars, Son is known for classic romantic fare like A Moment to Remember and April Snow. Recently she stepped into action (The Pirates) and thriller roles (Blood and Ties), but as Yeon-hong, she has demonstrated the heretofore unknown extent of her talents. Naturally switching between a quintessential political housewife, hollowed-out shell and vengeful force of nature, it's a superb, transformative performance that serves as the beating heart of the film.

Of course it isn't the first time that a lead actress has transformed herself under the guidance of director Lee. She performed the same trick with her debut Crush and Blush in 2008, when she coaxed an unforgettable role out of Kong Hyo-jin as an unhinged and perpetually red-checked schoolteacher. Lee's penchant for the off-kilter and bizarre remains on display here, but whereas her debut relied mostly on comedy, her latest work takes bolder strides and presents an altogether darker worldview.

With the help of cinematographer Ju Sung-lim, Lee has set her story in a world filled with duplicity. Shadows penetrate the dark while bright colors shimmer through the light in a mise-en-scene that employs crisp and precise framing, as well as complex setups that drag us further into the tale's mysteries.

The film's mood swings are at times a little too wide, and its midsection may come off as a touch convoluted, but any minor sidesteps are quickly forgiven in a focused final reel that boils with intensity and dispenses with the usual melodramatic bow-tying that mars so many Korean thrillers. Unfortunately The Truth Beneath hasn't set the local box office alight, but with any luck, we won't have to wait quite so long for Lee's third feature.

★★


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