Although “Moby Dick” isn’t an adaptation of the Herman Melville classic, but a Korean conspiracy thriller, the film does share a few themes with the whale chasing novel, primarily the all consuming pursuit of an obsession, in this case the hunting down of a mysterious all-powerful group who seem to be manipulating the country and government. Marking the debut of director Park In Je, the film follows the time honoured genre narrative by having as its protagonists a trio of investigative journalists, headed by popular star Hwang Jung Min (“Private Eye”), Kim Min Hee (“The Actresses”), and Kim Sang Ho (“Moss”).
The film is set back in 1984, and kicks off with a huge explosion that destroys the Balam Bridge just outside of Seoul. Although the official explanation suggests North Koreans or terrorists, reporter Bang Woo (Hwang Jung Min) has a hunch that there is something more to the story, a suspicion confirmed when his old friend and informant Yoon Hyuk (Jin Goo, “Mother”) turns up with some obscure documents that he claims are proof of a conspiracy. Teaming with colleagues Hyo Kwan (Kim Min Hee) and Jin Ki (Kim Sang Ho), Bang Woo sets about trying to find the truth behind the explosion, and soon realises that it’s just the tip of the iceberg and that solving the enigma may cost him more than just his career.
Opening with a quote from the Melville novel and featuring several sequences of Bang Woo imagining himself in the depths of the ocean with a gargantuan whale, “Moby Dick” very appropriately focuses on the idea of power as a huge, murky beast that lurks in the shadows, controlling everything from behind the scenes. This fits very well with the plot, which was apparently based upon a real life story, and the setting, the film taking place during a crucial time in modern Korean history, not long after the country had become fully democratic. Director Park does a great and subtle job of using this to ground the film, and successfully brings the period to evocative life, with an authentic depiction of the newly unshackled media.
This adds a definite depth to the proceedings, and although the conspiracy itself is fanciful, it’s believable in the context of the film, and is well handled in terms of the timing of revelations, with an intelligent script that never spoon feeds the viewer easy answers. The film definitely benefits from Park’s controlled handling, being complex and thoughtfully structured, without any sudden unmaskings or twists, building towards a conclusion which is not only rewarding, but more importantly sensible and in-keeping with its themes.
At the same time, the film is pretty action packed for a conspiracy mystery, and doesn’t get dragged down by long stretches of dialogue or exposition. Park keeps the tension high throughout, with lots of car chases and sinister scenes of the shady villains trying to arrange fake accidents. Thankfully, although the film does have the feel of a Hollywood style blockbuster in places, it generally avoids gratuitous or explosive set pieces, and the action sequences are all well judged and effective. A few light touches along the way also help to keep things moving at a good pace, as does the chemistry and banter between the leads, with Hwang Jung Min in particular turning in an impressive performance as the dogged Bang Woo. Also in its favour is the fact that the film eschews the kind of needless subplots that might have been expected, with no romance between Bang Woo and Hyo Kwan, and very little of the usual Korean last act melodrama. The film looks good too, with a professional feel and some slick direction from Park, giving a gritty feel though still working in some very cinematic visuals and showing a deft use of pale colours.
All of this combines to make “Moby Dick” a very accomplished and involving film, and proof that Korea is every bit as capable as Hollywood when it comes to conspiracy thrillers. Gripping and requiring a fair bit of concentration from the viewer, it’s a well written and well made film that should more than satisfy fans of the form.
Park In-je (director)
CAST: Jeong-min Hwang … Lee Bang-woo
Ku Jin … Yoon Hyeok
Min-hie Kim … Seong Hyo-gwan
Sang-ho Kim … Son Jin-gi
Kyeong-yeong Lee … Professor Jang
Bo-yeon Kim … Director Jo
Man-shik Jeong … Nam Seon-soo