From the outset, Moss, by director Kang Woo-Suk (Public Enemy, Silmido), wasn’t quite what I expected. I expected long, and yes, it was that, clocking in at 2 hours and 43 minutes from opening to closing credits. Not that I was wishing it was over half way through, of course, but a run time of 163 minutes is something that you want to know about before you buy a ticket, generally speaking.
I expected a suspense thriller, and it was that too, although slightly less so than I perhaps would have liked, at least at first. This probably had a bit to do with its slow-boil narrative. Ryu Hae-Kuk (Park Hae-Il, Memories of Murder, The Host) travels to a remote country village after he’s informed by an unknown caller about the death of his estranged father, and upon arrival at his father’s house he begins to find all manner of suspicious activity. But that’s not how the film actually starts. The film starts in 1978, with a prayer house and the calm, cult-like religious leader Ryu Mok-Hyeon (Heo Jun-Ho as Hae-Kuk’s father) coming to the attention of corrupt police detective Cheon Yong-Dok (Jung Jae-Yeong, The Quiet Family, Sympathy for Mr. Vengeance, Silmido). Cheon can’t understand the influence Ryu Senior has on people and is convinced he’s just in it for the money, which Cheon naturally wants a piece of. So, he does what any self respecting law enforcement official in the 70s would do and throws Ryu in jail in the hopes of wearing him down and getting a confession out of him.
In a rather amusing montage not long after (following the rather violent and wince-inducing montage, of course) Ryu Senior’s time in maximum security actually has the opposite effect, and Cheon starts to realise that whether or not Ryu is genuine, he has a power that Cheon can use.
This is where the narrative gets a little gappy for me, unfortunately, but perhaps it’s best not to examine these sorts of things too closely. For instance, why does Ryu set Cheon on the men who raped innocent Lee Young-Ji (Yoo-Sun, Uninvited, Black House) if he’s really such a saviour of souls? Isn’t it more Christian to turn the other cheek, to forgive? Does he believe Young-Ji can find peace only if she is avenged in an eye-for-an-eye fashion or that Cheon needs to become a vigilante to truly find his calling? Or is it some kind of means to a redemptive end and therefore justifiable, and whose redemption anyway?
Such questions are raised but never really answered, and this extremely unstable moral ground under a character who seems to be the good man to Cheon’s evil clouds the film when a more black and white approach would probably have served better. Of course, as events roll into and past the opening credits (a good ten minutes later!) it starts to become clear that this ambiguity is something of the film’s focal theme, even if it is a bit confusing. Ryu Junior is himself seemingly not a completely good man. His arrival into his father’s town also seems to herald an exit from his own, in the wake of a prosecution case against him of which he claims to be innocent. He shows a rather ruthless instinct for survival by tricking prosecuting attorney Park Min-Wook (Yu Jun-Sang, Tell Me Something, having a great deal of fun with his cranky, tough talking lawyer role) into saying something he probably shouldn’t on tape and basically ruining his career. Understandably Park doesn’t like Ryu much after that (sort of) and warns him to screw up again so he will have a new reason to arrest him. You just know that as soon as Ryu Jr. steps into town, he’s probably going to end up providing Park that reason.
And finally, at this point, the film turns into the thriller it’s supposed to be. Ryu doesn’t believe his father died naturally, and understandably so. The now elderly Cheon, ‘chief’ of the village and obviously both incredibly influential and incredibly corrupt, slinks around ordering cover-ups and keeping his cronies in hand, Young-ji just kind of plays submissive and silenced victim in the background, and as Ryu’s suspicions increase, the weird, menacing tone of the town continues to slowly unravel.
There are some wonderfully suspenseful scenes in this ‘act’ – the scene in Ryu’s basement while he’s on the phone trading witticisms with prosecutor Park, the chase through the forest a little later which nicely parallels Jeon Seok-Man’s (Kim Sang-Ho) original crime, the increasingly likely (not to mention unsubtle) suggestion that if Cheon is top dog in town then who does Ryu think it was it that was holding his leash? The more Ryu uncovers, the shakier the town’s false foundations become, but instead of making Ryu appear the unsullied hero, he is instead a force for destruction; someone just pointed him in the right direction and let him and his not-quite-bad-but-not-wholly-good nature do the rest.
This tension and the implications about good and evil that the facts begin to reveal thankfully carry this fairly lengthy and occasionally too-complex story through to its dramatic conclusion. You do start to understand why so many thrillers just tend to end with a fight-to-the-death scene between the protagonist and antagonist however – exposition and grudging confessions tend to bog things down and really only work for the original Scooby gang – but the performances of the cast throughout are solid and convincing (even if Cheon is the spriteliest old guy you’ve seen in a while) and the slight drag is forgotten and perhaps more importantly forgiven in Moss’ final moments, making for, in sum, a more enjoyable film experience than perhaps ever expected.