I stumbled over this movie a few weeks ago, and the premise intrigued, but I have to admit, I did baulk at the running time. I have a little problem with films that are overlong (I used to think the perfect film came in around the 90 minute mark, with 2 hours being the absolute limit), and the realisation that this one came in at an arse-numbing 2 Hours and 45 Minutes made me think twice about starting it. However, as it turns out, the running time was not the problem with the film.
“Moss” takes place in two separate times. In 1978 a corrupt detective
Cheon Yong-deok (Jeong Jae-yeong) comes across a stranger, Yoo Mok-hyeong (Heo Joon-ho) in his village, who seems to have the power to influence and inspire people with his preaching. His initial attempts to break the man fail, until he realises her can use this man to support his dreams of creating a managed community. In the present day, the strangers son, Ryoo Hae-gook (Park Hae-il, who I think is a policeman) learns of the death of his father, and comes to both pay his respects, but also to find out how he died. The local people make him feel very unwelcome which leads him to start investigating the nature of this village a little more deeply.
The previous paragraph contains the comment which sums up my entire frustration with the film. Now, we have to accept that my grasp of the Korean language is limited to maybe 10 words. Therefore I am utterly dependant on the skills of the subtitle translator, and the images on the screen. I said that I think the main protagonist is a Policeman. I don’t think I really know this, other than reading some advertising blurb. He has a relationship with a Public Prosecutor called Park Min-wook (Yoo Joon-sang) – which is obviously antagonistic, and it appears that our “hero” was involved in causing the Prosecutor some demotion. But there must be more to their relationship, as they still keep in touch, and despite their words, their actions suggest that there is something between them. This film is full of half-explained and explored moments like that.
For example, we see that our corrupt detective has some kind of plan that involves possibly using the enigmatic stranger to rehabilitate certain criminals. But it also seems to be involved in conning other villagers out of Real Estate. There is a massacre at a prayer house, that is suddenly pulled out of the Director’s sleeve in the final act – but is never really explained or explored. Two of the three Henchmen have a back story, the third remains an utter mystery. The relationship of the young girl/woman and the four village residents is merely hinted at.
Yet there are good things about it. It has an undeniable ambiance, and the two time periods are nicely rendered. It nicely adds in some violence, with the occasional snippet of tension-breaking humour (I loved the slow speed chase into the forest). The end scene was excellent, when suddenly we all realise quite who is the puppet-master here – we always knew that character was assisting our hero, but never quite how involved they were. The acting is top notch and it is always nice to see some familiar faces in supporting roles such as Yoo Hae-jin and Kim Sang-ho. I cannot deny that the film totally drew me in, and that dreaded running time never actually became an issue. I even was able to buy into the heavily made-up Jeong Jae-yeong in his present day incarnation (until maybe in his closing scene, when the prosthetics were affecting his ability to emote fully).
Now, I like a mystery, and this certainly has a “Twin Peaks” vibe going on, but the whole thing seems so under-developed. And when you have a running time of nearly 3 hours, I don’t think you have the excuse to leave things quite so woolly. Maybe the blame lies in the source material (I understand this is yet another adaptation of an Internet Comic), but there is enough experience involved here to understand the difference between mystery and frustration. I totally get the big picture, but I wanted more of a grasp on the small details.
At the end of the day, this movie is good, when it should have been great. It should have been essential, when it only ends up worthwhile. It did make a lot of money domestically, but my feeling is that this was only because it has been a quiet year for Korean Cinema. Mildly Recommended