“Missing Person” is another slice of quality Korean independent cinema, which was written, produced, and directed by debut helmer Lee Seo, who previously worked as an assistant on Jeong Yun Cheol’s “Marathon”. A dark, disturbing and all too believable drama, the film takes a very bleak look indeed at the worst abuses and excesses of social hierarchy and assumed positions of authority. Originally released in 2008, the film now arrives on DVD, following a successful and acclaimed run at festivals, having won Best Film at Jeonju and the Artistic Achievement Award at Thessaloniki.
The film is set in a small town, where a variety of characters live in increasingly desperate circumstances, chiefly Won Yeong (Choi Myeong Su), a greedy and abusive estate agent, who spends his days chasing customers and carrying on affairs behind his wife’s back. To vent his frustrations, he summons local unfortunate Gyu Nam (Kim Gyu Nam) to the basement of his office, where he berates, beats and treats him like a dog. Gyu Nam himself is a strange character, who earns a pittance by putting up missing posters, while living like a dog in a run down shack. As Won’s brutality begins to take its toll, he starts to lash out in his own way by snatching and killing dogs, later graduating to murdering people. As the local community descends into anger and distrust, Won is forced to face up to the consequences of his actions.
“Missing Person” is an effective mixture of character driven drama and crime thriller, basically charting an escalation of events in a small community which acts as a microcosm for modern Korean society. The film is fascinating in the way it blurs the lines between aggressors and victims, grimly depicting a societal hierarchy of violence that is passed down through the chain, with the strong preying upon the weak, who in turn prey upon those who are even weaker. The film is challenging in that it offers no easy answers or trite moralising, with Won being at once monstrous, and yet strangely human and with a conscience of sorts – though thankfully without even a hint of the usual kind of clichéd redemptive journey. Equally, Gyu Nam is a dislikeable, oblique figure, whose own acts of cruelty leave the viewer without an obvious distinction. Their bizarre, shifting master slave relationship not only drives the narrative, but effectively forms the film’s thematic base. Through this, Lee makes the film an incredibly gripping and tense affair, as it is made pretty clear early on through dog analogies that it will only be a matter of time before Gyu Nam snaps and bites the hand that feeds.
At times the film does drift a little too far into obscurity and symbolism, and some rather jarring aspects, such as the fact that Gyu Nam quite literally lives not only in squalor, but like a dog, with his own kennel, do detract from the overall realism. However, even these scenes are effective in their hopelessness, and help Lee to underline his points. All of this works to generate a relentless sense of oppression, and although engaging throughout, the film does not exactly make for fun viewing, never offering any real hope or concessions to more commercially minded resolutions. At the same time, Lee’s approach is measured and surprisingly mature, with his direction being both detached from and ambiguously involved with its characters, working in plenty of strange point of view shots and long, naturalistic takes. As well as uncomfortably implicating the viewer in the events in voyeuristic fashion, this lends the proceedings an almost documentary like air of realism, which serves to make things even more immersive and taut.
“Missing Person” is certainly one of the best and most hard-hitting Korean indie features of the last few years – no small praise, considering that the country is currently churning out some very impressive examples best low budget cinema. Lee proves himself a thoughtful and incisive director, and though frankly quite depressing, the film is exceedingly well crafted and brave in its take on some of the dark truths that often lurk behind the veneers of society.
Seo Lee (director) / Seo Lee (screenplay)
CAST: Myeong-soo Choi … Won-yeong
Gyoo-nam Kim … Gyoo-nam
Ki-yeon Kim … In-ae
Jung-hoon Ahn … Seon-woo
Nam-yeol Jang … Il-kwon
Won-yong Song … Jong-nam