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Moss -- Film Review

The Bottom Line

Generally compelling character-driven mystery that doesn't know when to quit -- or simply can't.

Venue:

Tokyo International Film Festival

Cast:

Jung Jae-Young, Park Hae-Il, Yu Jun-Sang

Director:

Kang Woo-Suk

Screenwriter:

Jeong-Ji-Woo based on the comic by Yoon Tae-Ho

Winding, weaving, and occasionally losing its convoluted way, "Moss," the latest from director Kang Woo-Suk, takes a turn away from the popular filmmaker's traditional action comedies ("Public Enemy") and historical dramas ("Silmido") to dabble in the psychological mystery thriller.

Winding, weaving, and occasionally losing its convoluted way, "Moss," the latest from director Kang Woo-Suk, takes a turn away from the popular filmmaker's traditional action comedies ("Public Enemy") and historical dramas ("Silmido") to dabble in the psychological mystery thriller. The film succeeds to about the halfway point until its narrative weight becomes overwhelming and it starts to collapse in on itself ahead of a fiery finale.

A strong, if not "Silmido"-level blockbuster, performance at home is no surprise, where it opened in the summer, and Kang's name and reputation could give "Moss" traction in Asia. Top-notch production values ensure general festival play and possibly limited runs in urban markets will define overseas release. Korean cinema aficionados should give it a healthy life on DVD.

In a small rural village, the god-like Ryu Mok-Hyeong (Heo Jun-Ho) is trying to forge a haven for those wishing to be reborn and live untouched by the world's evil. He has his first run-in with corrupt cop Chun Yong-Duk (Jung Jae-Young, "Silmido") when he's falsely accused of fraud. But Mok-Hyeong's cult of personality has Chun seeing the light in no time, and they join forces to build a better town. Flash forward to Mok-Hyeong's long lost son Ryu Hae-Guk (Park Hae-Il, "Good Morning President") arriving for Mok-Hyeong's funeral and who, in attempting to settle his father's estate, discovers a web of interconnected secrets and lies and abuse of power that may ultimately point to murder.

That's the short version. "Moss" is based on and Internet comic series and it shows. For the first 90 minutes or so the film does a first-rate job of building tension, making everyone look suspicious, and raising just enough questions to maintain forward momentum. In slowly revealing the connections within the small community and exposing each character's character, the underlying rot and hypocrisy of life in the idyllic village feels even uglier. But as one unsavory nugget after another comes to light, "Moss" simply becomes unwieldy.

Several characters have only partially fleshed out backstories that likely received more play in its original format; it wouldn't be surprising to hear of readers unconsciously filling in blanks -- odd considering the bloated running time. The missing links make for the film's most jarring moments: Hae-Guk is the estranged son back from the big city, but we never get a clear idea of why he's been absent in his father's life. He has a bitter history with possible maybe arch-nemesis prosecutor Park Min-Uk (Yu Jun-Sang), but how their antagonistic relationship developed remains an enigma. At its core "Moss" is melodrama about good, evil, sin and redemption, absolute power corrupting absolutely, and the intractability of human greed. It's a lot of story and theme, and Kang and writer Jeong Ji-Woo try to give sufficient time to all of it. In doing so, they sacrifice key elements that the story demands be addressed.

The saving grace here is the performances that (with the exception of blank Park) are uniformly strong. Though there are times he struggles to be seen beneath the latex, Jung pulls off a melange of menace, rage, and entitlement that suits Chun's transition from crooked cop to equally crooked village elder, so immersed in his own power he fails to see his inevitable downfall.

Venue: Tokyo International Film Festival
Sales: CJ Entertainment
Production company: Cinema Service, Let's Film
Cast: Jung Jae-Young, Park Hae-Il, Yu Jun-Sang, Heo Jun-Ho, Yu Hae-Jin, Kim Sang-Ho, Kim Jun-Bae, Yu Seon
Producer: Jung Sun-Young
Director: Kang Woo-Suk
Screenwriter: Jeong-Ji-Woo based on the comic by Yoon Tae-Ho
Executive producer: Kang Woo-Suk
Director of Photography: Kim Seong-Bok
Production Designer: Jo Seong-Wong, Lee Tae-Hun
Music: Jo Young-Wook
Costume designer: Jo Sang-Gyeong
Editor: Go Im-Pyo
No MPAA rating, 163 minutes