Friday, June 30, 2017

NYAFF ’17: The Truth Beneath

What do you get when you combine high school bullying with dirty politics? A mother’s worst nightmare. Much to her horror, Kim Yeon-hong’s missing daughter becomes an issue in her husband’s national assembly campaign in director-screenwriter Lee Kyoung-mi’s The Truth Beneath (trailer here), which screens during this year’s New York Asian Film Festival.

Initially, the Kennedy-esque Kim Jong-chan is heavily favored to oust the old, entrenched incumbent No Jae-soon, until Kim Min-jin disappears. Kim Heon-hong is understandably alarmed, but she is also frustrated her husband and his campaign staff are not more concerned. They seem to merely consider it an annoying opportunity for No to chip away at his family-values image. The good news is developments make it impossible for No to further exploit Min-jin’s disappearance. The bad news you can generally imagine. When Kim sets out looking for answers, she discovers Min-jin’s fate might be tied to secrets within both her daughter’s school and her husband’s campaign organization.

Judging from their movies, South Korean public opinion currently esteems politicians roughly on par with serial killers and men caught exposing themselves in playgrounds. Although Lee generally portrays her characters in nonpartisan terms, she clearly implies they are all corrupt on some level. Politics is a dirty business that seems to contaminate everything it touches.

Kim Yeon-hong is not exactly the Korean “Good Wife.” Despite her enthusiastic campaigning in the first act, she becomes a loose cannon soon thereafter. In a vivid and visceral performance, Son Ye-jin expresses all of Ms. Kim’s rage, guilt, and sorrow, but she is arguably such a bundle of raw nerves, it is hard to believe she can simultaneously function so efficiently as an amateur sleuth/vengeance-seeker.

Regardless, it is a bracing performance. Son also develops some appropriately complex and ambiguous chemistry with Kim Ju-hyeok’s Jong-chan. For Korean fans, it is a bit of an ironic pairing, reuniting the leads of the 2008 Korean rom-com My Wife Got Married. However, even if their professional history together means nothing to viewers, they should still appreciate the ways their on-screen relationship crashes and burns.

As thrillers go, Truth Beneath gets about as dark as the genre can get without encroaching on horror territory. Human nature is nasty, brutish, sociopathic, and well-tailored in Kim’s world, but she is a force to be reckoned with, like few we’ve ever seen before on film. Recommended for fans of cynical political thrillers, The Truth Beneath screens this Monday evening (7/3) at the Walter Reade, as part of the 2017 NYAFF.