Moby Dick (South Korea, 2011)

I am quite a fan of conspiracy thrillers. Indeed, I believe that the genre has produced some of the most fascinating, engaging and thoroughly cinematic films of our times. Whilst the roots of the conspiracy thriller go back much further, I am reminded of the New Hollywood cinema of the 1970s, the point at which the genre was probably most popular. Anyone who has seen the little film that Francis Ford Coppola managed to wedge in between behemoths that were parts I and II of The Godfather, has probably never forgotten The Conversation (1973), and its profound atmosphere of paranoia. Another of the most enduring successes of that decade was All the President’s Men (1976). Granted, the latter film had quite a story to start off with, but it was also one of the most well-crafted and exciting films to come out in that period. Lately, conspiracy has featured frequently in films, but it is no longer the sole focus of the vast majority of narratives. Although there are still some fantastic examples, such as the sadly cancelled AMC series Rubicon (2010) and one of this year’s best films (if not the best at this point), Tinker, Tailor, Soldier, Spy (2011), the conspiracy theory genre has steadily lost its allure.

In Korean cinema, conspiracy plays a similar role as it does in other international cinemas, namely as a narrative device to create conflict, inject tension and allow for twists and reveals. Almost always, there is one recurring element at the heart of these conspiracies: Korean cinema’s trump card, the ever-present and threatening North Korea. Moby Dick isn’t particularly different from other Korean films featuring these tropes; the main difference is that here it is the narrative’s principal focus. As one would expect, this is both to its advantage and its detriment. It seems that it is the mission of Chungmoro (Korea’s Hollywood) to create at least one Korean version of every style of film ever made. Moby Dick is the country’s first press-centric conspiracy theory thriller and, to give one other example, one of this week’s Korean platform releases is The Client (2011), Korea’s first courtroom drama. Don’t get me wrong, I am quite happy to see the industry stretch its wings into every conceivable narrative dimension, lest it get stale for perpetually depicting melodramas or violent thrillers of the ‘Asia extreme’ variety. The negative side is that things often miss the mark, but the tradeoff is that we expect a lot from Korean films, especially how they reinvent genre.

Following a mysterious explosion on Balam Bridge in 1994, journalist Lee Bang-woo (Hwang Jong-min) is approached by Yoon Hyuk (Jin Goo), someone he used to know from his hometown, who claims that things aren’t as they seem. Lee enlists the help of fellow reporters Son Jin-ki (Kim Sang-ho) and Sung Hyo-kwan (Kim Min-hee) to unwrap a deep conspiracy.

Moby Dick, alas, is fairly straightforward and this poses two problems: as a conspiracy thriller, it may be effective and more or less hit the right notes, but it is also simplistic when conspiracy is a genre in which things shouldn’t be too easy to follow.  The other problem, although this may be more aptly classified as a disappointment given my expectations, was that it did not reinvent the genre in any way and pretty much played out like a well-made Hollywood thriller.  Problems like these could easily derail a film, but I am pleased to report that the film’s other qualities are redeeming. Technically, the film is quite impressive, or perhaps par for the course by Korean standards which are very high. I especially liked the muted colors and the emphasis on lines and angles in the framing of the shots across the city.

Since the film is set in 1994, shortly after South Korea became properly democratized, but also not long before 1997’s devastating IMF crisis, this style works in its favour. Despite new civil liberties afforded civilians and a relaxation in censorship towards media in general, there is an air of reticence that pervades the diegetic world of the film. Though set only 17 years ago, it nearly feels like a period film, this is a testament both to the nation’s progress in that timeframe and to the skill of the mise-en-scene.The cast, headed by Hwang Jong-min, is very strong and perhaps the main cause for recommendation. Hwang is typically excellent as a brash and cocky reporter who has been down on his luck for a few years. Kim Sang-ho, who seems to be in at least every second Korean film these days, plays the affable buddy reporter with an effortless charm. The rest of the cast, rounded out by Ku Jin and Kim Min-hie, is all uniformly impressive.

I can’t say too much about the director, Park In-je, as the film, like so many in Korea these days, came from a first-time cineaste. I’m not quite sure why so many Korean directors seem to only get one credit. On the one hand, it could be construed as democratic as many get a chance to helm a feature. Although, I daresay that it is a shame that so few talented individuals get the opportunity to develop their craft. However, I digress; this is a discussion for another day. Sadly, I don’t know who wrote this film and, after a quick search, that information did not readily pop up online.  I do think that, while the conspiracy theory element of the plot wasn’t as convoluted and far-reaching as I would have liked it to be, the script was nevertheless a solid genre effort that thankfully did not veer into sentimental melodrama. Moby Dick is another strong genre offering from Korea that kept me engaged from start to finish, though I was disappointed by the functional but straightforward conspiracy element.  However, this didn’t prevent me from enjoying myself thoroughly.

Pierce Conran writes for Modern Korean Cinema, Twitch and currently lives in South Korea.