South Korean cinema has perfected the police procedural owing mainly to Bong Joon-ho’s Memories of Murder (still his best, I think), which set the bar very high at a crucial time when Korean directors were coming into their own internationally. Though there’s nothing particularly distinctive in terms of narrative about Korean cop movies, the industry’s fairly relaxed attitude toward excessive violence, sentimentality, and social criticism often combine to make them much more than just the sum of their foot pursuits and dogged interrogations. Moreover, the mysteries tend to be informed by something that transcends the mere solution of a crime.
Even by those standards, Park Ji-wan’s debut feature, which she wrote and directed, is extraordinary, and it’s not just because the featured detective is a woman, but rather how her identity as a woman affects her sleuthing. Kim Hyeon-soo (Kim Hye-soo) is a veteran cop who hasn’t been a detective that long, and her career as the latter has been interrupted by a traffic accident that led to what sounds like a recovery period combined with a temporary suspension. When she finally returns to regular duty, her colleagues welcome her back but something is obviously different, and not just because she still needs to go through an internal investigation. Her first assignment is to look into a cold case on a remote island that involves a teenage girl who went missing on the night of a big typhoon. Her shoes were found on the edge of a cliff overlooking the sea, and she left a note in the house where she was staying. The local police have determined it to be a suicide, but they need confirmation from Seoul headquarters since they have yet to find a body. Kim’s job is to close the case once and for all.
From the beginning, it’s clear that it’s a job no one wants to do, and Kim goes about the investigation at first in a desultory manner, checking with the local cops and persons who knew the girl. She soon discovers that the case is more complicated than what she was told. The girl was essentially in a witness protection program since she was ready to testify against her own father, whom she fingered as the ringleader of an elaborate smuggling operation. The prosecutors set her up on the island in an empty house to keep her as far away from her father and his associates as possible, but the longer the girl, Se-jin (Roh Jeong-eui), stayed in isolation, the more uneasy she became. Kim finds this out from the only person who was close friends with her, Sun-young (Lee Jung-eun), a deaf, middle-aged woman who bonded with Se-jin over the former’s comatose niece, whom Se-jin cared for on a part-time basis. Through Sun-young, Kim starts doubting the local investigators’ stories, and realizes that Se-jin’s connection to her father is more fraught than anyone originally imagined.
But as Se-jin’s story slowly reveals itself, so does Kim’s. She is in the middle of a contentious divorce whose contours align with those of her accident and casts a pall on everything she does. It’s not so much that her situation causes her to identify with Se-jin, but rather that Se-jin’s desperation seems to have sprung from the same sort of reaction that Kim is now feeling toward all the men in her life trying to tell her what she has to do. As such, she understands that she has been sent here to close the case as a condition for getting her own career back on track. And she resents it.
Steady command of atmosphere is one of the hallmarks of South Korean cinema, and Park proves herself to be more than up to the task. There’s not a whole lot of action, and some viewers expecting a thriller may be disappointed, but the emotional tension never lets up. Even if the mystery offers no big surprises, it provides something richer: A character arc that is both realistic and dramatically affecting.
In Korean. Now playing in Tokyo at Euro Space Shibuya (03-3461-0211).
The Day I Died: Unclosed Case home page in Japanese
photo (c) 2020 Warner Bros. Ent.