"If I kill you, then I lose. Live... and pay for it!"
Jong-chan (Kim Joo-hyuk) is a news anchorman turned politician who is campaigning for election. He, his wife Yeon-hong (Son Ye-jin) and their teenage daughter Min-jin (Shin Ji-hoon) lead a fairly well-to-do existence with Yeon-hong proudly standing alongside her husband in his professional campaign, providing love and support in his private life and ensuring their daughter stays on the straight and narrow. Fifteen days before election voting takes place, Min-jin fails to return home but though Yeon-hong instantly worries that something untoward has befallen her daughter, Jong-chan insists on delaying involving the police for fear it may adversely affect his political aspirations.
Hours become days without a single sign of Min-jin and with law enforcement doing next to nothing to find her, Yeon-hong decides to take matters into her own hands to find out what has happened to her daughter. However, as Yeon-hong begins her increasingly frantic investigation she is unaware of the tangled web of lies, betrayal and indeed blackmail she is about to unearth...
Follow any election campaign or listen to virtually any political speech and you’ll hear statements purporting to be the truth, the whole truth and nothing but the truth, rhetoric a somnambulant public is expected to accept at face value without question. How often, however, does hindsight reveal hidden agendas behind such oh-so-sincere claims or show them to be little more than thinly veiled lies hiding a far less altruistic truth beneath?
‘The Truth Beneath’ intricately and deftly weaves these politically related ideas as almost a subplot thread that acts as a base for the main narrative focus. That is, Yeon-hong’s desperate efforts to discover what happened to Min-jin. However, director Lee Kyoung-mi doesn’t stop there and by using the personal equivalents of these themes she is able to massively expand the characterisation of Yeon-hong – greatly increasing its depth –in the process raising questions of how her misperceptions and blinkered view may have played a part in her current, terrible situation:
In the early stages of ‘The Truth Beneath’, several scenes outwardly show Yeon-hong’s seemingly near-perfect family life and her absolutely loving relationships with those closest to her as well as her warm friendships with a wider circle, including the people in her husband’s employ. However, we are soon to discover that Yeon-hong seemingly takes virtually everything she's told at face value and has repeatedly, blindly, ignored numerous flags that would have revealed familial cracks, if she’d taken the time to look just a little deeper. It’s only when she starts to investigate Min-jin’s disappearance that these flags finally begin to register with her – her husband refusing to explain where he was and who he was with on a specific night; Min-jin saying she was going to study with her friend Jae-hye, with Yeon-hong simply accepting her claim as fact without checking the phone number Min-jin gave was correct or even asking who Jae-hye actually is; Yeon-hong being completely unaware that her daughter is being bullied and ostracised at school; etc.
The more Yeon-hong delves and the more people she talks to about Min-jin, the more she is lied to by all and sundry and as the truth slowly begins to be revealed the more she has to face the fact that she actually knows next to nothing about her husband, her daughter or her friends, the very people she centres her life on. As such, aside from the situation relating to Min-jin, Yeon-hong has to deal with her (perceived) life being stripped away piece by piece. As she desperately tries to keep from falling apart altogether, her move towards thoughts of retribution are almost inevitable, both for Min-jin on a conscience level and subconsciously for herself and the beautiful life that has been taken from her.
While Yeon-hong certainly isn’t to blame for what has happened to her daughter, ‘The Truth Beneath’ does, to my mind, ask whether the situation would have happened at all if Yeon-hong hadn’t been so (blissfully) blinkered for so long.
The film’s ultimate statement on this idea comes in its very final moment as a perfectly thought-provoking coda, ensuring this unfortunate woman’s story will stay with viewers long after the credits roll.
The pacing of ‘The Truth Beneath’ correlates perfectly with Yeon-hong’s increasing frustration and desperation, the first ramp up in speed coming as she takes part in a frenetic shamanistic ritual, as has been the case in a number of other of this year’s films.
Throughout, the narrative seamlessly moves between past and present as the story unfolds with each time frame easily understood within overall proceedings.
Director Lee Kyoung-mi uses quite a few editing ‘tricks’, as it were, to move between scenes and/or time periods.
Some of these are utterly superlative - Min-jin walking along a road in daylight while a car appears to be driving down a curved hill behind her, the scene morphing into night and showing the car to in reality be Yeon-hong’s, as searches for her daughter days later, for example – but even those that are somewhat more obvious (such as a split-screen visual montage accompanied by music showing the passing of time as Yeon-hong searches through Min-jin’s emails) serve their purpose well enough and director Lee Kyoung-mi certainly can’t be criticised for attempting to add some visual flair, especially in her sophomore feature.
It could be said that the numerous, often tiny plot elements adding up to the truth of what happened to Min-jin in the second half of the film feel a little cluttered at times, but they ultimately add to the unpredictability of the tale – making the narrative stronger as a whole – and as such I’m almost happy to let that slide.
Those who have seen virtually any of actress Son Ye-jin’s early work almost cannot fail to have become long-term fans. From Lovers’ Concerto to The Classic, to A Moment to Remember, to April Snow, Son Ye-jin totally owned every single film in which she starred, each and every scene in which she appeared, such was her insane talent for producing utterly believable, absolutely heart-wrenching emotions in front of the camera, seemingly spontaneously.
In more recent years as Son Ye-jin has become one of the biggest female names in the Korean film industry, she has of course starred in an increasing number of big budget blockbusters such as The Tower and The Pirates. It almost goes without saying that huge films such as these, while largely entertaining, by their very nature place far more emphasis on spectacle and action than narrative nuance or character depth. As such, there is often little for actors and actresses (including Son Ye-jin) to sink their teeth into, as it were, to show what they are truly capable of.
‘The Truth Beneath’ completely redresses the balance - Son Ye-jin’s performance easily and by far being her best since White Night in 2009, her talent positively screaming out of a myriad of emotions from love to confusion, to despair, to disgust, to hatred, to vengeful determination and beyond.
‘The Truth Beneath’ is Son Ye-jin’s film from start to finish, her phenomenal, award winning performance lifting the film from entertainingly absorbing to utterly enthralling.
Initially appearing to be a tale of politics and family, ‘The Truth Beneath’ ultimately shows itself to be a far more personal and poignant story of one woman’s efforts to uncover the truth of what happened to her daughter, and her discovery in the process of the lies and betrayal that permeate her entire life.
THE TRUTH BENEATH (비밀은없다) / 2016 / Directed by Lee Kyoung-mi