Mystery Slowly and Somewhat Interestingly Forms in 'Moss'

Directed by: Kang Woo-suk , Runtime: 163 minutes
Grade: B-

While director Kang Woo-suk has released a range of successful crime films since 2002, starting with Public Enemy , his style differs from the genre contemporaries emerging from South Korea at the time. His perspective slants towards quirkiness and humor, taking precedence over the modish, bleak grittiness common in many of the region's thrillers -- which is why Moss (Hangul) comes as a bit of a surprise. Adapting a webcomic of the same name by Yun Tae-ho, it's a stark, shadowy whodunit marathon about a rustic village built with the bricks of spiritual indoctrination and the demons of its citizens' pasts, allotting itself little downtime for anything upbeat in the midst of a deadly mystery. It's quite a puzzler, too: while overlong and overtly vague about the moral implications woven within, Kang Woo-suk adeptly combines an eerie mood, unsettling hostility, and mental turmoil within its disconcerting maze of twists and turns.

Ryu Hae-guk (Park Hae-il , War of the Arrows) is the one careening through the maze, the estranged son of one of the village's "founders". He receives an anonymous phone call notifying him that his father has passed of natural causes, leading him to the village to settle his estate. When he arrives, the greeting is less than courteous: police officers resist cooperating with his wish for an investigation into the "natural" death, the village insists that an autopsy isn't necessary, and, more importantly, everyone tries to get Ryu out of the village as quickly as possible. The peculiarity appears to lead back to Cheon (Jung Jae-young), an old, wealthy police chief pulling the strings who, gauging by the flashback at the beginning of Moss, has a convoluted relationship with Hae-guk's father -- one that hinges on verbal persuasion through pseudo-philosophical mind tricks. It's something Ryu wants to investigate for himself.

The town's oddness creates a vacuum that sucks Ryu Hae-guk, and the audience, into an elaborate channel of clues to follow, where we're chasing the promise of illumination about his father through dangerous circumstances and almost cult-like citizens that abide by some clandestine agenda. Kang Woo-suk creates a chilling atmosphere with Moss by provoking the senses inside this distress: visceral acts of violence methodically appear, often in the frequent flashbacks, while Hae-guk's travels across the town are bolstered by pulsing music, dim lighting, and the occasional craggy tunnel. Cinematographer Kim Sung-bok combines his steady-shot intimacy in My Sassy Girl with the occasional raw verve reminiscent of his work on Joint Security Area to lend vigor to the village's shadowy, earthen atmosphere, and when it's matched with Jo Yeong-wook's score, it's hard break free from the grip of danger coiled around the story.

It doesn't take long for Hae-guk to unearth lies, paper trails, and skeletons in closets, all centered on the bizarre accord amongst the shifty-eyed townspeople that Moss slowly divulges. Bizarre happenings occur around Hae-guk that boost the intrigue, from the lurid relationship many of the town's men have with a conventional, pretty, buttoned-up woman to their peculiarly rigid reaction to an autopsy request. The power of any good mystery resides in how well it sustains a balance between revealing answers to quandaries about weird goings-on like these and leaving the audience asking, "But, why?" -- and Moss often successfully exploits this dangling uncertainty. Though the audience has a vague outline of the "how" through flashbacks centered on his father's persuasion and coercion, the material never idles long enough for someone to comprehend motivation or meaning behind the village's peculiarity.

Obscurity becomes both a key asset and the chief frustration I have with Kang Woo-suk's work, where the story's pathos and underlying themes lock horns with his premeditated insistence on leaving certain elements unclear. The story makes a point of emphasizing the effectiveness of Hae-guk's father as an unremitting mental power who's able to convince others of his agenda of salvation, a form of indoctrination; however, Kang Woo-suk frames his persuasion in a way that almost seems unnatural, as if mystical forces control it. Whether it's other-worldly or merely the effect of his stoic, haunting gaze and grace with words remained a mystery, and that'd be fine in another setting. But as Moss pulls the curtain back on its mysteries -- and themes of corruptibility, redemption, and ethical leverage become an important ideological thrust behind what's happened -- it culminates in a cluttered moral perspective that undermines the philosophical and institutional points it'd potentially make, failing to measure up to the likes of Sympathy for Mr. Vengeance or Memories of Murder in critiquing a moral gray area.

Instead, the confused intellectual aspects at the core of Moss are mostly reduced to superficial discoveries unearthed from Ryu Hae-guk's sleuthing , a set of machinations built around murders, real-estate dealings, and other back-stabbing endeavors that confidently keep those watching on their toes. Indeed, the mystery sustains its energy through a nearly three-hour span, where compelling performances from seasoned Korean actors, including a barefaced Park Hae-il as Hae-guk and Jeong Jae-yeong in dual-aged roles, elevate the film's twisting discoveries and brooding essence until the grand revelation of the village's truths -- the end of the maze. Yet, the nonstop energy has a lingering effect once it reaches a rash, somewhat forced conclusion: the longer the warped mystery endured, the more thematically lucid the revelation needed to be at the end of Ryu's inspection. And while digging through the puzzling layers of Moss can be enthralling, the outer layers flourish much more than what's at the center of it all.

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