In this season that has seen families unable to be together as normal and political…uh…complications…WTF ASIA presents a story of a politician’s family that undergoes strife when the daughter goes missing.
For the past 16 years, Noh Jae-soon of the Korea Party had represented the city of Daesan in the National Assembly. However, this year, upstart Kim Jong-Chan managed to secure the nomination, forcing Noh to run as an independent candidate. This is huge news for the city: either there will be a generational shift in leadership or a change in party.
Either way, Kim celebrates his primary win at his house that evening, inviting members of his campaign and other Assembly members from the Korea Party. And when Noh calls Kim to not-so-politely congratulate him on stealing the party from him, Kim puts it on speakerphone so that everyone can join in on the gloating.
As Jong-Chan is basking in the glory, his wife and his mother are preparing the feast. 15-year-old Min-jin tells her mother Yeon-hong that she will be going to a friend’s place to finish a group art assignment and will be back late. Yeon-hong tells Min-jin to look her in the eye and Min-jin says that she will be with her friend Ja-hye. Since she knows that this victory means that her parents will be even busier than normal, Min-jin assures her mother that she will behave and stop causing trouble. Yeon-hong tells her to pin Ja-hye’s phone number on the memo board. Min-jin grimaces, but writes it down. Her grandmother asks what she wants for her birthday, and Min-jin jokingly asks for $100,000. Yeon-hong tells her mother-in-law that none of that is necessary, and that a birthday party is already in the works.
It is a sunny day and election campaigning is in full swing, with the competing political parties dancing and chanting in public places, distinguished by colors and numbers. Noh and some of his supporters pass by Yeon-hong and her team.
Meanwhile, Min-jin is at home, bored out of her mind. Eventually, she…uh…walks out…to go to school? Maybe?
The sunny day has turned into a rainy evening as Yeon-hong returns home. Min-jin is not there, so she tries calling her number, only to be told that it cannot be connected. She tries Ja-hye’s number, only to be told that there is no one there by that name. She calls one of Min-jin’s classmates, who has no idea where she is. In fact, they had not hung out for over a year. And she has never heard of a Ja-hye.
Yeon-hong goes to the campaign headquarters to talk with Jong-chan. She wants to report Min-jin missing. But…there is a problem. Noh Jae-soon has been using Min-jin’s party-girl reputation as negative campaign fodder on his website, posting somewhat compromising pictures from two years ago. Some of the other Korea Party assembly members worry that reporting her as missing will just feed into the narrative. And anyways, this is not the first time that Min-jin has run off. A couple of the assembly members get a little…unsympathetic, joking about Min-jin’s bad behavior. And then they start prodding at Yeon-hong herself, saying that her coyness regarding her place of origin only exacerbates regional rivalry problems for the campaign. Jong-chan tries to shut down the arguments, saying that he has final say over whether to report this. Since making this go public might damage the campaign’s messaging was about protecting children, Jong-chan decides to wait a day. Yeon-hong objects, but Jong-chan does not want Noh to use this as ammunition to win the election. Yeon-hong leaves, angry.
Meanwhile, Jong-chan goes to have a secret meeting with a…politician…discussing whether to join forces to make a new political party.
Yeon-hong goes to the police and gives him all of the information that she has about Ja-hye. Third year, 11th class. She gives a detective the phone number and Min-jin’s description of her: same height as Min-jin, father is a public servant, tortoise shell glasses, long legs, messy hair, great at drawing. The detective asks if Yeon-hong has ever seen Ja-hye or talked to her on the phone. No, but Min-jin had said that she was a great student. As someone else shows Yeon-hong the identity of the person who has that phone number (Yeon-hong does not recognize her), the detective discreetly looks up Noh Jae-soon’s website, which is now asking why Jong-chan is hiding his wife’s hometown.
Later on, detectives come to the Kim household and tell them that there were no incidents the night of the disappearance aside from some hit-and-run homicide near the outskirts that killed a man from elsewhere. They ask about Choi Mi-ok, the person whom Min-jin has called the most. Yeon-hong does not recognize the name nor the school photograph that they show her.
Then Jong-chan sees it. A girl who is the same height as Min-jin, with tortoise shell glasses, long legs, and messy hair. It is a photograph of Yeon-hong from when she was a teenager. Not only that, but in the photograph. Yeon-hong cannot believe it. After all, she was never good at art. But there it is. The bag that Yeon-hong was holding says Ja-hye Piano School, and the phone number is similar enough to the one that Min-jin had written down. Min-jin’s friend Ja-hye officially does not exist. She lied to them. Once again. Well, this is embarrassing.
Yeon-hong is not done yet, though. Min-jin’s phone turned off during school hours, so Yeon-hong goes to her school. No, there is no Ja-hye. Nor was there any art assignment.
Yeon-hong does get a student to point her to Mi-ok, who is just loitering on some exercise bar. When Yeon-hong approaches her, she is sitting down and seemingly trying to unlock a cracked cell phone. She puts the phone away and explains what happened. She and Min-jin had stayed at school until late at night. Min-jin got into a white car and left. That was it. Min-jin seemed to know the person in the car, but Mi-ok could not get a good look at the person or the license plate. Yeon-hong asks Mi-ok what her father does. Mi-ok tells her that he drives shit around. A sewage truck, says Yeon-hong. What about her mother? No mother, a stepmother. Two sisters, two brothers, and a grandmother who is really sick.
Yeon-hong notices Mi-ok’s wristwatch and grabs her hand. That was Jong-chan’s watch, then Min-jin’s watch, and had been stolen when they moved here. They did not report it due to its cost, but this daughter of a sewage truck driver can afford one? Mi-ok insists that it is hers and curses out Yeon-hong. Well, that is the end of that meeting.
Yeon-hong asks Min-jin’s homeroom teacher about Mi-ok, though he notes that the detectives and journalists already have. The same with last year’s homeroom teacher. She tells Yeon-hong that they had been in the same class in the first year, that they were inseparable, and had consistently excellent grades. Yeon-hong is skeptical, as the grades were not consistent, but somehow rose drastically after a time.
Nam Su-choong of the violent crimes division gets tasked with solving the disappearance. Yeon-hong and Jong-chan talk with him in his car…which has a bunch of flyers for Noh Jae-soon. Almost immediately, Nam asks why they continued campaigning after Min-jin disappeared. Both of them are suspicious at this line of inquiry. The second detective asks what they were doing when she disappeared. Jong-chan tells them that he was in an important meeting, but refuses to give details unless it becomes a problem later.
Back at home, Jong-chan and Yeon-hong go through their daughter’s things. As Yeon-hong looks through a journal, Jong-chan recalls that Yeon-hong had a rebellious streak when she was younger. Obviously, Min-jin is taking after her. Ignoring that, Yeon-hong asks him the same question that the detectives did: who did he meet with the night that Min-jin disappeared? Jong-chan asks whether that is important and Yeon-hong tells him that it is important enough to decide whether they will continue living together. The discussion pretty much ends there, but later on, she yells at him for continuing to campaign in front of a group of staffers. He tells her, in a more private setting, that he had been meeting with someone whom he could trust. Not the best phrase to use when speaking to a spouse who is losing trust. She says nothing, but her look says everything.
As Jong-chan starts to use the narrative of a family man on a quest to rescue his daughter into his campaign, Yeon-hong does some detective work of her own. She tricks an IT person into helping her break into Min-jin’s computer. She goes through the mess of e-mails comes across one with looks like it has a school test. Yeon-hong also figures out that Min-jin had been in phone contact with Son So-ra, her teacher since first year, whom Yeon-hong had briefly spoken with the other day.
Yeon-hong goes to speak with Son So-ra again. As she had told the detectives, So-ra had sometimes talked with Min-jin over the phone, since first year.
She shows Yeon-hong a video of Min-jin and Mi-ok performing some…quirky indie rock for their classmates while getting what looks like paint and flour thrown at them. So-ra tells Yeon-hong that Min-jin did not want her parents to know that she was ostracized at school. Yeon-hong gets down on her knees and begs So-ra to help her as much as she can. So-ra insists that that is all that she knows. They both start crying.
The days go by and Yeon-hong starts to suspect that Noh Jae-soon might been involved in Min-jin’s disappearance. Detective Nam tells her that there is no evidence that points in that direction, his own political beliefs compromise that conclusion in Yeon-hong’s eyes. She demands that he show her the investigation reports, which he tells her he cannot legally do.
After driving…rather recklessly, Yeon-hong manages to take both Nam and Mi-ok to a…uh…hypnotist’s office. Under hypnosis, Mi-ok says that there is a white car and a woman from Seoul speaking to Min-jin. Min-jin gets into the car and it drives off. She manages to recall some of what was on the license plate. Mi-ok says that Min-jin was probably going to Seoul to become a singer. Then she wakes up…with no memory of what she revealed under hypnosis. Was it real? Nam has had enough of this. Yeon-hong can hear people campaigning for Noh outside the office. She opens the window and yells at them to shut up.
Forget politics. Forget legal. Forget proper. Yeon-hong is going to figure out what happened to her daughter no matter what.
The movie could have easily become a political satire that focused on the war between Kim Jong-chan and Noh. And, indeed, there is still some of that in the movie. The needs of the campaign delays the investigation and threatens to compromise it. There is, of course, the obvious irony of Jong-chan putting off the investigation of his daughter’s disappearance because it could hurt his reputation as someone who would protect Daesan’s children. The politicians do not want it to affect the direction of the race, unless they do. And, of course it does, and Jong-chan has to lean into it. The movie is pretty cynical in its portrayal of the race and the people involved. However, that is not central to the move; the machinations and the push-pull of these powerful men is only part of the story.
What starts out as a political drama quickly turns into a mystery, and that turn centers around the main character of Kim Yeon-hong. Even in the first few minutes when the story focuses on her husband, it is her in the first shot, and it is she who gets to take up the frame while is in the back. Yes, this movie is about her search for her missing daughter and how her husband’s political aspirations factor into that. Yet, the movie is really about her and her transformation.
When we first meet Yeon-hong, she is the happy spouse of a politician on the rise. She plays the role of supportive wife and mother. However, this role that she plays is just that, a role; one that she has cultivated for at least sixteen years. No, there is probably nothing all that especially lurid about her past, but she was probably a somewhat rebellious teenager, not unlike her daughter. But that is the problem. While she is not necessarily at the forefront of her husband’s campaign, whatever privacy afforded to her regarding her past has been used as a weapon against her. Even her evasiveness regarding her hometown. Who cares? Well, apparently, it is a big deal to be a political liability. The implication is that she is not of proper background to be so close to power…in Daesan. Honestly, I had to look up where this place was and all I could see was this port town that does not have a Wikipedia entry. Perhaps it is a fictional city just for the movie.
It is suggested, not too subtly, that Min-jin is her mother’s daughter, for good or bad. The characters lean on the bad side, but the movie is a bit more nuanced. Both are the daughters of public servants, though Yeon-hong’s father probably never came close to Kim Jong-chan’s position. They both had musical backgrounds and supposedly had dreams of becoming a singer. They both had rebellious streaks that could cause problems, but they have supposedly grown out of it. Regardless of what she was thinking when she did it, Min-jin based her fake friend on her own mother. But what is the main thing that separates Yeon-hong from her daughter? Well, Yeon-hong is a mother and Min-jin is not.
The movie plays rather coy regarding Yeon-hong’s past, but however it was, it seems like she had long since grown out of it and shaped up by the time the story starts. She had settled into her role as wife of a public servant. Dutiful, smiling, supportive. Does she even have a job beyond helping her husband? Well, eventually, she becomes a mother, and that becomes her life. She is a wife and mother in a family that is on its way up.
The shiny veneer starts to crumble after Min-jin gets kidnapped. The first cracks come from the outside. Literally, one of the first things that Yeon-hong notices when she comes home is that the windows in one part of the house are open, letting the rain in. But when she goes to the campaign office, those congressmen poke at her for being secretive about her hometown…as if that is relevant to her worries about her daughter. Insulted, belittled, patronized, dismissed; the identity that she had made herself means nothing. So, she starts to change. It is unclear whether she is changing into someone new or revealing parts of herself that she had repressed for years. She gradually does away with her niceties, politeness, decorum. This starts a little before the endpoint of my plot summary, but really takes off afterwards. And people notice. The media notices. But Yeon-hong does not care. She has become, what one might consider call a mama bear. The result is not always pleasant or sympathetic towards her, particularly regarding her interactions with one particular character. And it does not always help her, particularly in one disturbing scene that cuts before we see how it gets resolved.
Yeon-hong is not simply a force of nature or an avenging angel. She remains heavily flawed…very very flawed. Everyone is shown to be, really. But more than the political machinations, and even more than the mystery, the movie is interested in Yeon-hong; what she does with what she learns, how she acts and reacts.
There are some other themes in the movie, like how people react to what others tell them without digging further, and how people’s struggle for dignity and even survival can end up hurting others, be it through sheer ignorance or outright maliciousness.
This is the second feature film written and directed by Lee Kyoung-mi. She had worked as a script supervisor and…I believe…assistant director on Park Chan-wook’s Lady Vengeance. And Park also helped to write this movie. One can see his influence and fingerprints on this movie, particularly in the style and tone of certain scenes. Overall, though, I feel like Lee kept it her own.
I…don’t really have a conclusion for this. This is a good movie.
WTF ASIA 141: NH10 (India: 2015, approx. 107-111 minutes)
WTF ASIA 142: Bright Future (Japan: 2002, approx. 115 minutes)