The Classified File (Geukbisusa)

Korea (2015) Dir. Kwak Kyung-taek

Another film “based on true events”, this Korean kidnapping drama from Kwak Kyung-taek takes a slightly different route in setting out to redress the balance of credit and not focusing solely on the investigation. A bold move but one which becomes clearer in the final act.

In 1978, a young girl Eun-joo (Hwang Chae-Won) is abducted from outside her school in Busan but her parents hear nothing from the kidnapper. Her mother (Lee Jung-Eun) and aunt (Jang Young-Nam) seek the advice of fortunetellers, most of who say Eun-joo is already dead – except one, Kim Joong-San (Yu Hae-Jin). Kim also foresees positive results if they engage Detective Gong Gil-Yong (Kim Yun-Seok) to the case.

Gong is reluctant to help but as a father feels compelled to, although he is not convinced that Kim’s astrological contributions are valid, until Kim correctly presaged the kidnapper would call after 15 days. From here, the kidnapper had Eun-joo’s family running in circles to make the ransom exchange, but Gong is hampered by the Busan Investigation team intent on solving the case themselves for the kudos and chances of promotion.

The last sentence explains what Kwak was hoping to achieve with this film, highlighting the efforts of the two men who solved the case who didn’t get their dues at the time. Kwak doesn’t set out to demonise the usurping officers yet isn’t shy in exposing their malfeasance during the investigation either. This is more about two men who value their integrity over personal gain.

Illustrating this is how Gong and Kim are both earnest, humble family men and not a super cop or hokey mystic as they might be presented under different circumstances. Neither can claim to enjoy affluent lifestyles, especially Kim whose abode is modest at best, a symptom of his devotion to the pursuit of the spiritual cleansing of his soul, which his wife and three kids would rather not subscribe to.

Kim is a student of well-known psychic Baek (Lee Jae-Yong), whose ascetic commitment is rather undermined by his flamboyance and willing acceptance of celebrity status; coincidentally Baek was one of the seers who suggested Eun-Joo was dead. Whenever Kim would consult his mentor, he would be told he was wrong or not up to the task, yet it was Kim’s ballpark accuracy and fertile hunches that yielded the most positive results.

Gong’s recommendation to work the case by Kim is a little murky since his only real credential is saving Eun-joo’s aunt from a pickpocket once upon a time. Since Eun-joo’s father (Song Young-Chang) is a wealthy fishing magnate with ties to the police force, this unusual request is granted as much to the surprise of the police chief as it is to Gong himself, but his empathetic side overruled his cynicism.

The film’s title comes from Gong’s suggestion to keep the case away from the media to avoid upsetting the kidnapper and incurring a rash reaction which could harm Eun-joo’s chances of being returned alive. This is accepted but the head of the Busan Investigation team (Jang Myung-Kab) plans to still conduct things his own way, often jeopardising their progress, or in one instance, sabotaging it completely.

If this latter part is an exaggeration by Kwak to create some dramatic tension to reinforce Gong and Kim’s noble intentions, the irony is that it is no more outlandish than the notion of modern day mystic solving a crime, which is true. It is highly probable that some viewers may find this to be the least convincing facet of the story, but Kim’s predictions are not always 100% accurate – his timings may be a minute or two off or his locations might be more approximate than exact.

Even Gong takes a while to see the benefit of Kim’s foretelling and the pair often butt heads, Gong being the more aggressive of the two, but once he realises his colleagues are effectively working against him, Kim is the only man he can trust. In exploring this odd couple pairing, Kwak refuses to follow convention and have their conflicting personalities either create tension or comic relief, allowing a respectful understanding bloom instead.

Defying expectations is a central concern of this film insofar as the reach of its appeal, especially in the West where “Korean cinema” is, for many, essentially a byword for violent action flicks. There is little action and the drama is contained to interpersonal disagreements, but that isn’t to say it is lacking tension during the failed exchange scenes, heightened by claustrophobic camerawork and tight editing.

Getting past the clunky and confusing patchwork pre-credits opening of quick cuts and disjointed continuities, designed to introduce the main characters, takes some time once the pace slows dramatically to begin the story proper. From here on in, everything is laid out in a clear linear fashion and the natural charisma of the main cast is the first major hook to ensuring our attention is held.

For Kim Yun-Seok, the role of Gong is a chance of pace, allowing him to explore a softer, more humane side as opposed to his usual gruff, antagonistic roles, which Kim himself said was a key factor in accepting the role. The toothsome Yu Hae-Jin is another actor adept at both villainous and comedic roles, but playing Kim the fortuneteller sees Yu as at his most calm and dignified.

However you may feel about the story essentially being a regulation abduction drama or the shamanistic content a risible gimmick despite its veracity, the closing postscript showing the real life Kim and Gong as they were in 2015 in many ways renders this cynicism as churlish since this was the first time in almost 40 years they got the rightful recognition for solving this case – twice as it happens.

Enjoy or don’t enjoy The Classified File as is your wont, this is stealthily absorbing film about respect and that is what Kwak deserves for shining the spotlight on these unsung heroes.

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