The corruption of the ruling elite is certainly nothing new in Korean cinema. After years of military dictatorships and scandalous corporate backhanders, it’s clearly understandable why such themes are continuously prevalent. However these narratives often approach from a reactionary perspective, highlighting the suffering of those victimized by injustices. Little explored are the foundations of a community, the roles and interplay of law, religion, power, crime and punishment in the creation of a society. Such Shakespearean motifs are traditionally reserved for period dramas, yet Kang Woo-seok’s (강우석) Moss (이끼) wonderfully examines the labyrinthine networks of power in a contemporary village in Gangwon province. Based on the incredibly popular internet comic, Moss (이끼) is an exhilarating and fresh addition to the thriller genre.
While struggling against a law suit, Ryoo Hae-gook (류해국, Park Hae-il (박해일) receives news that his estranged father, Yoo Mok-hyeong (유목형, Heo Joon-ho (허준호), has died. Visiting the estate, Hae-gook is surprised to learn of his late father’s role as one of the elder statesmen of the village, yet merely wishes to resolve any outstanding affairs and return to his life in Seoul. However Hae-gook’s curiosity is piqued when his father’s partner, the powerful village foreman Cheon Yong-deok (이장, 천용덕, Jeong Jae-yeong (정재영) and his three right-hand men - Kim Deok-cheon (김덕천, Yoo Hae-jin (유해진), Jeon Seok-man (전석만, Kim Sang-ho (김상호), and Ha Seong-gyoo (하성규, Kim Joon-bae (김준배) - continually attempt to persuade him to leave. As Hae-gook digs deeper into the mystery of his father’s death and the strange behaviour of the residents, he must confront the disturbing truth about the village and its inhabitants.
Screenwriter Jeong Ji-woo (정지우) has translated the web-comic to film with incredible skill, lacing each protagonist with depth and nuance – as well as fully realised character arcs – that makes each confrontation compelling viewing. This is remarkable as the 163 minute running time may seem excessive, but the narrative is so fueled with suspense and the protagonists so fascinating that the time is hardly noticeable. The plot is the epitome of labyrinthine, carefully taking time to construct the scenario through flashbacks and the creation (and breakdown) of relationships through subtle character defining events. Director Kang Woo-seok (강우석) is impressive in visualizing such dense material, from the intimidating fortress overlooking the village to the claustrophobic subterranean tunnels. Praise should also be bestowed upon the set design, lighting and editing departments, who display ingenuity in creating the tension-filled world of Moss (이끼).
The actors are also wonderful in bringing the community of Moss (이끼) alive. Park Hae-il (박해일) is excellent as the idealistic Hae-gook who is continually involved in events beyond his understanding, while his nemeses - Yoo Hae-jin (유해진), Kim Sang-ho (김상호) and Kim Joon-bae (김준배) - are incredibly unnerving and intense in portraying the criminal classes/extensions of power. However, the most exceptional performance belongs to Jeong Jae-yeong (정재영), who is loud, violent and ambitious as a young man, but silently commands respect as an elder. The sheer intensity conveyed through his expressions is amazingly sinister, demanding obedience with merely a glance. The weakest link is Yoo Seon (유선) as store owner Lee Yeong-ji (이영지) through no fault on her part, as her role is virtually forgotten until the third act when her presence is suddenly elevated into a lead protagonist.
Thematically, Moss (이끼) is also a triumph. The portrayal of corruption seemingly endemic with the ruling elite is hardly original, but Moss (이끼) strives to explore all areas in the creation of a society, notably the role of religion. As such, the village in Moss (이끼) acts as a microcosm for society, and how the younger generation must fight against the greed of their elders. Yong-deok, the village foreman, was a corrupt police officer in his youth but his ambition for power was continually unfulfilled. That is, until he met Mok-hyeong, a man with a violent past that had apparently found redemption through religion who was quickly amassing followers. The jealousy for power and influence ultimately fuels their relationship, yet both are keenly aware that alone they can achieve little. In joining forces to create a community both men have similar intentions but are ideologically opposed, as they wish to exert dominance over others but through different means. Each man is clearly representative of the ideological vie for power in society, and the process in which they become increasingly more corrupt is as organic as it is alarming. There is rather blatant bias however, as Mok-hyeong’s Christian ideology is constantly represented as inherently ‘good’ which diminishes the exploration somewhat.
In discovering the sinister origins of the village, Hae-gook is representative of the younger generation that must reveal and persecute such greed. Hae-gook studies old books and documents, finds subterranean tunnels, and must even join forces with an enemy in the pursuit of his father’s murderer. As a young divorcee, Hae-gook embodies the change in society as the shift away from tradition becomes ever more apparent. His naivety and idealism is endearing but simultaneously foolhardy, as he continually fails to understand the larger events at hand.
Moss (이끼) is a incredibly well executed thriller that delves into Shakespearean themes of the vie for power amongst the ruling classes. The interplay of different features of society, from religion to the criminal classes, constructs a dense tale of suspense that highlights the unfairness, and the generational differences, within a culture and emphasizes the importance of prosecuting the corrupt. The bias nature in representing Christianity, and the under-developed female role slightly detract from the viewing experience, but despite this Moss (이끼) is a highly entertaining and compelling foray into corruption in contemporary Korea.