A scene from Kang Woo-seok's thriller "Moss," which is based on the popular Internet cartoon of the same name
By Lee Hyo-won
``You should live like moss, you know, quietly, almost invisibly, stuck underneath a stone,’’ a character snarls to his archenemy.
But the movie, curiously titled ``Moss,’’ is unlikely to slip into oblivion. Kang Woo-seok, the first director here to realize the 10-million audience miracle _ which is, mind you, nearly a quarter of the local population _ with ``Silmido’’ makes a comeback with a story based on a cartoon strip with a cult following.
In spite of some details that go amiss as Kang tries to pack in too much, the long running time of two-and-a-half hours goes by in no time _ which says a lot about the high quality of the suspense this film aims to offer. But it also inspires a lot of laughter through some ingenious comic relief in between the thrills.
The cast list had been under much scrutiny among fans of the original cartoon, and Kang may well forever silence those who vehemently opposed choosing the 39-year-old Jung Jae-young in the role of a grandpa in his 70s. It must be said that while Jung sometimes looks like Gollum from ``The Lord of the Rings,’’ the improvement in the level of Korean cinema’s costume/makeup is impressive, as is Jung’s shining talent as an actor.
The movie remains faithful to the original comic, meaning here that Kang has leapt over the problems of translating something with a stubborn vocabulary into a new audiovisual language.
But those who have not read the cartoon are not at a loss here _ Kang creates a solid mainstream thriller that will keep any member of the audience at the edge of the seat. ``Moss,’’ deserves comparison to movies that are much larger in scope such as Martin Scorcese’s ``Shutter Island.’’
Moviegoers should be warned that this is no feel-good movie as it probes into uncomfortable issues like a Lee Chang-dong film _ religious fanaticism and violence serve as appetizers before a platter overflowing with revenge and redemption, with human drama and tragicomedy for dessert. Kang himself said it was hard to cook up all that he wanted to say and the struggle shows _ good luck digesting it.
It all begins in a prayer hall back in 1978. Ryu Mok-hyeon (Huh Joon-ho) is a veteran of the Vietnam War who seems to have achieved nirvana while meditating to deal with the guilt of killing people on the battlefield. He attracts people like moths to a light bulb, with nothing but his charismatic glance and a few spoken words.
As people start looking up to him like a resurrected Christ, the prayer hall’s director feels threatened by Ryu’s presence and seeks the help of a corrupt, power-hungry policeman Cheon Yong-deok (Jung). Cheon succeeds in imprisoning him but eventually becomes convinced that he can make good use of Ryu’s ability to win over people for his own master plan _ he is sick of how convicts often resort to criminal behavior after serving multiple times in prison and wishes to create a sort of utopia to convert them once and for all.
The movie then fast forwards to the present. Cheon has retired and is now the greatly respected head of a remote village. Ryu has passed away, and his estranged son Hae-guk (Park Hae-il) arrives for the funeral.
Hae-guk, however, is startled by the uncanny behavior of Cheon and the townspeople. He begins to suspect that his father did not die of natural causes and tries to unravel the mystery shrouding the village.
The film mostly features bright day scenes yet retains much of the suspense factor _ though it could have toned down some of the rather cheesy sound effects highlighting the anticipation of the big bang. While bona fide actors Jung, Park, Yoo Hae-jin, Yu Jun-sang and Yu Sun give skin-crawling performances, it’s too bad that some of the characters remain rather one-dimensional.
In theaters July 15. Distributed by CJ Entertainment. 163 minutes. 18 and over.