THE TRUTH BENEATH (2016)
A masterfully mercurial political thriller co-penned by Park Chan-wook, a desperate mother searches for her missing daughter in the midst of her husband’s electioneering
Political scientist Francis Fukuyama’s seminal work – ‘The End of History and the Last Man’ – proposes that liberal democracy resembles the final form of human government for all nations. That may be so, but despite democracy’s dominance and the failure of its alternatives, that does not preclude the system from fault lines of its own.
The public posturing, the mania with polling data and the sliding moral compass to snaffle votes makes the modern election an ideal backdrop to this missing persons thriller scripted by Crush and Blush (2008) director Lee Kyoung-mi and Park Chan-wook (Oldboy, The Handmaiden).
The pair previously shared scripting duties on Lady Vengeance (2005) and combine here to similarly impressive effect, managing to craft an emotionally layered and satisfyingly twisty thriller, aided by smart framing, perfect pacing and a deeply committed lead performance by Son Ye-jin (The Classic, A Moment to Remember, April Snow).
Kim Yeon-hong (Son) is married to slick political rising star Kim Jong-chan (Kim Joo-hyuk – The Servant, Yourself and Yours). They have a troublesome teen daughter, Min-jin (Shin Ji-hoon), who promises to keep herself out of trouble as Jong-chan contests an election with established incumbent No Jae-soon (Kim Eui-sung – The Day a Pig Fell into the Well, Train to Busan).
When Min-jin goes missing, the details of her disappearance seem suspicious and as Yeon-hong starts to dig she learns more about her daughter’s difficult childhood and mysterious activities. This leads her to their daughter’s peculiar friend, Choi Mi-ok (Kim So-hee), who is both a suspect and a key component of discovering Min-jin’s whereabouts.
As for Jong-chan, he remains preoccupied by the election instead, choosing to keep the disappearance a secret at first to avoid derailing his campaign, which contains a claim to “Protect our children”. Her husband’s indifference and her growing desperation sends Yeon-hong into a desperate spiral as she tries to find their daughter in time.
While there are some Park Chan-wook fingerprints beyond the script, especially on some scene transitions or the unique sensibility when a new character is introduced, those are fleeting side notes as Lee Kyoung-mi musters a project very much in her own mould, building on the confident strokes of her black comedy debut, Crush and Blush.
There are also some feminist touches which are perfectly pitched to highlight such issues, but keep them nestled within the flow and pacing of the film. These include press coverage of the political couple where Yeon-hong’s vibrant dress is branded ‘controversial’, or as she peruses the file on her daughter which is titled the case of ‘Kim Jong-chan’s daughter’. All this despite her more forthright search for Min-jin compared to her husband’s continued search for political power.
The Truth Beneath does a remarkable job entwining political and family themes, alongside notions of desperation and the descent into madness, while keeping a steady scalpel to any cinematic fat to produce a perfectly packaged thriller outing.