JENNA MAHALE reviews Lee Kyoung-mi’s gripping thriller exploring the role of women in political families under the scrutiny of the public eye.
You have likely heard the idiom: ‘Behind every great man there stands a woman.’ Here, the ‘great man’ is usually taken to mean one that is ‘celebrated’, and implicitly, this ‘standing woman’ is a wife. She performs the role perfectly, cooking, raising the kids, and in the context of a political family, smiling for the camera.
The Truth Beneath has a darker take on this role, tracking the transformative trajectory of Yeon-hong as her teenage daughter Min-jin goes missing; the life she thought she knew falls into a chaos of her own making. Her husband Jong-chan, an news anchor now running as a candidate for the National Assembly, agrees to wait before releasing information of their daughter’s disappearance, despite pledging in his campaign he will ‘Protect Our Children’: Yeon-hong finds herself alone in her quest for the truth.
The film opens with a slow shot of a weary-looking Yeon-hong, accompanied by a hummed melody like a lullaby, signaling to the viewer that the ensuing tale can only end in tragedy. It is a relatively muted shot when compared to many others in Lee Kyoung-mi’s lurid palette. The unsettling vibrancy of the colour scheme heightens anxiety, especially in scenes where the sinister aspects are particularly evident. The film is a slow burner, the action arrives in rapid bursts. As a result, the pacing feels slightly off, but not enough to detract from the pull of the plot.
The Truth Beneath has a complex structure, employing bold, distinctive time-jumps that do an excellent job of filling the gaps in the narrative. The film’s intricate denouement has the audience gasping as realisation dawns, but also leaves them satisfied with a watertight ending. In the style of a traditional ‘whodunit’, The Truth Beneath successfully fulfils what it sets out to do using powerful audio-visual anchors. The image of an abandoned, still-moving swing recalls the moments directly after the audience last see Min-jin. The humming of a lullaby at the beginning is referred to as Min-jin’s song, with multiple reprises being played at her mention. A few dramatic devices also feature: the film employs pathetic fallacy when Min-jin first goes missing, indulges in an extended scene portraying the juxtaposition of sex and death, and has shadows leak across the frame to darken the screen in an oh-so-familiar manner.
The Truth Beneath is part of the London Korean Film Festival’s special focus on the lives of Korean women through the eyes of female directors, a worthy feature considering its portrayals of marriage and motherhood. The female perspective shines through the film, surfacing in little moments. Lee Kyoung-mi makes an important point about how women associated with public office are often scrutinised based on their appearance, showing us an article critiquing Yeon-hong’s funeral attire as ‘inappropriate’ despite the insurmountable grief she has to experience.
Actress Son Ye-jin brilliantly conveys the emotional toll on a parent when facing the tragedy of losing a child. Her interpretation of Yeon-hong is breathtakingly realistic: when she finally breaks down after days of keeping up the façade of being okay, it is because of her worry that Min-jin is not eating properly, that she had eaten very little before her disappearance. It must be noted, however, that The Truth Beneath does perpetuate certain stereotypes about maternal instinct and women being innately ‘more emotional’ than men, even implying that paternal apathy is to be expected.
Needless to say, it would be remiss to peel your eyes away from the screen at any point during The Truth Beneath: and you simply would not want to. The film is exceedingly beautiful, employing vivid colours and a perfectly composed mise-en-scène that seems almost surreal. Lee Kyoung-mi’s use of layered shots is visually fascinating; she always provides something to catch the viewer’s gaze. The Truth Beneath will have your heart pacing, keeping you on the edge of your seat until every convoluted detail has been revealed.
‘The Truth Beneath’ is screening on the 3rd November as the opening film of the London Korean Film Festival, which is running from 3rd to 27th of November. More information and the festival programme can be found here.