Sunday, February 26, 2012

NYKFF ’12: Moss

Divorced and resentful, Ryu Hae-guk is not someone you want to cross. He looks underwhelming, but he simply will not let things drop. A public prosecutor abusing his position learned that the hard way. A tyrannical village chief might learn a similar lesson when Ryu attends his estranged father’s funeral. Unfortunately, his new antagonist plays by different rules in Kang Woo-suk’s Moss (trailer here), which screens today at BAM as part of the tenth annual New York Korean Film Festival.

Ryu makes enemies. The terms of his alienation from his father Mok-hyeon are not completely clear, but it seems to involve his long absence during the younger Ryu’s formative years. Revered as a guru by his followers, the elder Ryu spent years in prison as part of a corrupt cop’s frame-up job. Yet, instead of breaking the spiritual leader, his incarceration only won him new devotees. Believing he could harness Ryu’s powers, his old nemesis, Cheon Yong-deok, founds a village of ex-cons around Ryu’s pacifying influence. A lot of things went wrong after that, culminating in Ryu Hae-guk’s unwelcomed arrival.

They do not like city folk in the village and they make the fact clear to the junior Ryu. Yet, their reluctance to answer simple questions, like how did his father die, stokes his doubt. Before long he has discovered a network of underground tunnels and witnessed a wide array of questionable behavior. Increasingly suspicious, he enlists an unlikely ally—the only public prosecutor he knows.

Moss has an indescribably eerie vibe that is deeply atmospheric while hinting at something vaguely supernatural. Surrounded by forests, the village setting bears an obvious comparison to Twin Peaks, yet Kang keeps it all reasonably grounded. There are no dwarves or giants, but there are plenty of temporal shifts. Frankly, at well over two and a half hours, Moss probably has one or two flashbacks too many. Indeed, several characters have more time in their backstory narration than in the present day.

Even with healthy doses of old man make-up, Jung Jae-young makes a dynamite villain, oozing fierceness and self-righteousness as Cheon, while chewing the scenery like a monster termite. Park Hae-il’s bland Ryu is no match for him, but he soldiers on as best he can. However, Yoo Sun brings unexpected pathos to the proceedings as Lee Young-ji, a witness, victim, and co-conspirator to Cheon’s crimes. Seen only in the flashbacks of others, Heo Jun-ho also adds tragic gravitas as Ryu’s conflicted father.

In fact, Ryu Mok-hyeon’s sympathetic ambiguity is one of the more intriguing elements of Moss. Even though Evangelical Christianity has grown tremendously in the Republic of Korea over recent decades, it has not been kindly treated in Korean films, like Lee Chang-dong’s Secret Sunshine and Lee Yong-ju’s Possessed (which is so unlike Hollywood’s enthusiastic embrace of the Evangelical community here in America). In contrast, Ryu Mok-hyeon is a flawed but earnest and ultimately noble figure. Though he is not explicitly identified as an Evangelical, the signifiers are pretty clear.

Moss is a spooky thriller with an eerie sense of place. Thanks to art directors Zoh Sung-won and Lee Tae-hoon, its mountain village looks great, but you would not want to visit there. Though admittedly on the longish side, Kang dexterously handles each new revelation, keeping viewers hooked throughout. Well worth seeing on a big screen, Moss plays this afternoon at the BAM Rose Cinema, where the 2012 New York Korean Film Festival concludes tonight (2/26).