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Kang Woo Suk, officially Korea’s biggest blockbuster director after scoring an endless run of hits with the likes of “Public Enemy”, “Silmido”, “Hanbando” and more, returns with another box office triumph in “Moss”. Based on a popular 2007 internet comic, the mystery thriller follows a dogged young policeman investigating his father’s death in a remote village, and again sees Kang tackling themes of corruption and conspiracy in his usual hard hitting manner. The film is headlined by warring duo Jung Jae Young (“The Divine Weapon”) and Park Hae Il (“The Host”), with an impressive supporting cast roster that includes Yoo Jun Sang (“HaHaHa”), Yu Hae Jin (“Public Enemy”), and actress Yoo Seon (“Black House”). The film was a huge commercial and critical hit in Korea, raking in over 3 million box office admissions, as well as earning Kang a well deserved Director award at the 47th Daejong Awards, where it also took home prizes for Best Cinematography, Art Design, and Sound Effects.
Park Hae Il stars as Hae Gook, a policeman who travels to a remote rural village to attend the funeral of his estranged father. Although he decides to settle down in the peaceful area, he finds the villagers oddly uncomfortable with his presence, even more so when he starts to become convinced that his father’s death may not have been due to natural circumstances as reported. Before long, he is butting heads with ex-detective and village chief Cheon (Jung Jae Young), who puts him under constant surveillance and suggests in no uncertain terms that he pack up and leave. Unsurprisingly, this only deepens Hae Guk’s resolve to get to the bottom of the village’s many mysteries, and he is forced to call in outside help in the form of Park (Yoo Jun Sang) a prosecutor whose career he once derailed.
Although the premise of “Moss” may sound like a simplistic detective mystery, with Kang Woo Suk at the helm it unsurprisingly turns out to be an elaborate, labyrinth affair that makes efficient and gripping use of what could have been a seriously overlong running time of 163 minutes. Thankfully, despite its many twists, turns and subplots, the film is tight and coherent, rattling along at a fine pace and managing to keep the viewer in suspense throughout thanks to a well timed series of revelations and deepening and ever more serious riddles. Even for those who pick up on the ending early on, the film still has a few tricks up its sleeve, with a truly satisfying curveball climax that makes it worth watching all over again from the very beginning. Kang does a great job of upping the tension, with events gradually escalating, growing more and more threatening as the scope of the conspiracy becomes clear, and the question as to the death of Hae Gook’s father shifts from who, to how, to the all important why.
To a large extent, the film works as a character piece as well as a traditional whodunit, being driven in fine cat and mouse fashion by the battle between Hae Gook and Cheon, with both Jung Jae Young and Park Hae Il turning in convincing performances and giving their rivalry a genuine chemistry. Through this, as well as allowing Kang to explore his usual themes of corruption and modern morality, the film also works in plenty of psychological drama, with a few effective emotional notes involving Yoo Seon’s ambiguous possible femme fatale figure. The supporting cast as a whole are all far more fleshed out and less generic than is usual for this kind of film, and the script and dialogue are very well written, giving the proceedings a sharp, intelligent feel. As well as the leads, Yu Hae Jin is also on great form as a surprisingly endearing comic relief henchman, as is Yoo Jun Sang, whose prosecutor makes a great foil for Hae Gook, with their bickering relationship also making for a good number of laughs.
Plot and characters aside, the film is a superbly atmospheric and moody piece of cinema, with the specially constructed rural village set being a fine and creepy creation. The handsome looking film benefits from some gorgeous cinematography, which really brings out the inherent eeriness of the setting and which makes for more slow burn chills than seen in many recent horror outings. The film does feature quite a few action set pieces, giving the plot the occasional jolt, and a few splashes of blood and violent shock scenes which help to keep the threat level high, with an ever present sense of lurking danger.
“Moss” is certainly well deserving of its accolades and box office success, standing as one of the best Korean films of 2010. Kang Woo Suk again shows himself to be a master of suspense, managing to combine a highly complex plot, fascinating and engaging characters, and plenty of heightened tension in a way which few directors are able to, making for an immaculately tuned mystery that never sacrifices intelligence for cheap thrills.
Woo-Suk Kang (director) / Ji Woo Chung (screenwriter), Tae-Ho Yoon (comic)
CAST: Jae-yeong Jeong