The Liar (Geojinmal)

Korea (2014) Dir. Kim Dong-Myung

It is becoming increasingly tough to keep up with the Joneses is these days of austerity and economic disparity so why not choose the alternative – just pretend? It doesn’t cost you anything, except maybe the trust of those around you and maybe your own sanity.

Ah-Young (Kim Kkobbi) sits in a lush apartment in her smart attire when the agent returns, feeling she made a sale but Ah-Young has a headache and tells the agent she’ll be in touch. Ah-young is next seen wandering around a top end furniture store keen on buying a new addition for her flat, but seems to have left her wallet at home.

Yet this is the same non-descript Ah-Young who works in a beauty clinic, lives with her obese alcoholic sister (Lee Sun-hee) in a tiny flat and dates thrifty, low-tier car salesman Tae-ho (Chun Sin-hwan), who is desperately saving up so they can get married. But as the lies about Ah-Young’s fraudulent lavish lifestyle begin to catch up with her, the attempts at keeping up the pretence take their toll on Ah-Young.

The story and themes driving the second film from Indie director Kim Dong-Myung aren’t so obvious on first inspection, reminding us the advantages non-mainstream cinema has in being able to deliver caustic social commentary without compromise. The Liar is more than the tale of a young woman with ideas above her station, it is a quietly compelling character study in what makes Ah-Young tell the lies she does.

It seems like a cheap route to take in revealing the strain of Ah-Young’s family life as the cause of her seeking solace in a fantasy world of capricious high spending and waving it under the noses of others, but this is the sad truth while exposing a side to Ah-Young we don’t expect to see. But she lives in a materialistic world and is surrounded by people for whom this is of great importance – ironically including the vain middle-aged faces she injects with Botox at the beauty clinic.

Ah-Young’s co-workers are the equally vain, good-looking gossipy types and it is clear that she doesn’t measure up despite maintaining her poise, so she embellishes her story a little – he sister is married to a fashion tycoon, her younger brother is studying in the UK and she has her wealthy fiancé propping up her lifestyle. The other girls are in awe of this except one begins to see Ah-Young’s lack of tangible evidence suspicious, putting the pressure on her to continue to perpetuate the lie.

Kim Dong-Myung’s subtly cynical script does a great job in portraying everyone as a victim of the same curse whether they realise it or not, most of all Ah-Young. Working in the beauty industry the vacuous importance of looking good is forever in her face, and Ah-Young gets a piece of this action when she swans around the various stores with the credibility of a potential sale for the staff they presumably would have scoffed at had she been less well groomed.

Even Tae-Ho thinks his girlfriend is a class act because of this, believing the tall tales about her family, hence his earnest frugality to save up for their wedding, yet he too is not adverse to a little deception, trying to convince Ah-Yong he is a bigger deal at the car dealership than he actually is. In aspiring to meet her apparent standards, Tae-Ho is trapped in a vicious cycle of depriving himself for someone no better off than he is.

Frequently the audience finds itself wondering why Ah-Young just doesn’t tell the truth to relieve herself of this self-inflicted burden and seek help for the issues blighting her life. But the problem with liars is that when they do tell the truth nobody believes them so continuing with the façade is the only way forward until it blows over. However, there is the matter of self-denial, such as Ah-Young’s alcoholic sister, which is another form of lying.

The story behind the drinking isn’t revealed, leaving us to assume a lack of self-esteem from her obese frame, or maybe from the fall out of the split in the family unit, both parents a distant presence in their lives. The sister are handling this in destructive ways but on completely different tiers – while one sister’s decline is emotionally fraught, Ah-Young is calculated and clinical in avoiding her issues.

It is the peculiar shades of grey that Ah-Young is painted in which make her such an engagingly ambiguous principal who remains detached from audience empathy even when we should be on her side. She is too cold and precise in her ongoing ruse to warm to, and as an architect of her own downfall, she deserves everything she gets, which makes the palpable vulnerability to her character so difficult to ignore and be moved by.  

So kudos goes to Kim Kkobbi for being able to be a dislikeable protagonist capable of playing with our sympathies in another powerhouse performance from Korea’s arguable indie queen. Ah-Young is a complex woman and Kkobbi is able to get beneath the skin of this chameleon like shell to bring out the nuanced mechanics controlling her but gives away nothing.

With a near empty CV to her name, there is little to say about Kim Dong-Myung’s directing style, other than the low-fi approach of no musical soundtrack and eerily observant camerawork shows she is someone who wants her audience to feel and be immersed in the story rather than be overawed by flashy imagery, which works exceptionally well in this instance.    

I have to be honest the bafflingly enigmatic finale to The Liar feels like its undoing after 90-plus minutes of grounded, trenchant social drama, while the stunning tableaux in itself is masterfully bewitching. That sums up this film really – nothing is what it seems and while we know this, we have no option but to simply accept it.