True Fiction (Sal-in-so-seol)

Korea (2018) Dir. Kim Jin-Mook 

Never underestimate the power of a good storyteller. If they have that magic touch they can convince you that everything they say it the truth or at best plausible enough to be believed no matter how outlandish it may be. The only caveat is how deep down is the truth buried when someone is spinning a yarn.

Lee Kyung-suk (Oh Man-seok) has been told by Senator Yeom Jung-gil (Kim Hak-cheol), who also happens to be his father-in-law, that he is going to be the leading candidate for the mayoral elections of Daechung. Before the campaign begins, Jung-gil asks Kyung-sik to deposit some money into his safe in his lakeside cottage – a simple enough task except Kyung-suk decides to take his mistress Lee Ji-young (Lee Na-ra) with him.

Along the way, Kyung-sik runs over a dog, leaving the scene with haste. Arriving at the cottage, the couple are greeted by Kim Soon-tae (Ji Hyun-woo), the site caretaker and owner of the dead dog, for which he demands compensation. Kyung-sik is keen to get away so he agrees to a quick payment but Soon-tae is after a lot more.

In this twist after twist debut from Kim Jin-Mook, True Fiction boldly declares that this film is based on true story at the start which in turn is revealed to be a very clever ruse on Kim’s part. Yet, after the myriad of misdirection and creative subterfuge thrown at us over the next 102 minutes it’s hard to know what to believe, which is one of the film’s themes.

Bad people doing bad things and getting their comeuppance is the main lesson being imparted here as much as it is that politics is a dirty game, although one look at the news tells us this. But is politics corrupt or just the people who are corrupt? According to Kim it’s a bit of both but the old adage of power corrupting stands tall as a reminder that some things are simply inherent.

Kyung-sik at first is portrayed as an unassuming bespectacled pen pusher being given a big break by his intimidating superior but the moment he hits the road with Ji-young the façade drops. He calls his novelist wife Yeom Ji-eun (Jo Eun-ji), whose car he is driving, claiming to be on an important job and denying he has company whilst Ji-eun is in bed with her toyboy lover foreshadows the sort of mess that is likely to unfurl here.

On the surface, Soon-tae appears like your typical rural forelock-tugging caretaker that the likes of Kyung-sik wouldn’t wipe their dirty shoes on, but he manages to win Ji-young over by giving her a ride on Jung-gil’s boat and sharing his dinner with them both. Not impressed with Soon-tae and Ji-young smoking joints, Kyung-sik nips off to buy some cigarettes ending up in a fight with petrol station worker Seung-Pyo (Lee Yoo-Joon).

Unfortunately for Kyung-sik, Seung-Pyo and a motorbike courier he also knocked over earlier show up at the cottage, apparently friends of Soon-tae, both demanding restitution. Kyung-sik’s patience is running thin and tries to fight his way out of this but Soon-tae reveals his trump card and has Kyung-sik at his mercy. Or does he?  

We now find ourselves wondering just who the good guys are in this scenario – that’s if there are any. Blurring the lines between bad behaviour and getting a taste of their own medicine usually makes for a curious dynamic in testing the audience’s moral stance when it seems the protagonist is going too far. But Kim is careful to posit Soon-tae in a grey area and make us wonder if he isn’t any better that Kyung-sik.

The broad strokes with which Soon-tae is painted carry sufficient ambiguity to make him come across a player playing another player, which is exactly what Kim wants. Soon-tae reveals key moments from his past that reveal both a good and bad side to his character, someone with a chip on his shoulder but a nasty habit of going to extremes in seeking to address the balance.

Kim starts to add further confusion with a brilliant twist leading into the final act to have us question Soon-tae’s endgame whilst at the same time marvel at his ingenuity and skill as a manipulator. But just as we think we have a grasp of the situation Kim throws more fuel onto the fire until the flames obscure everything and even the smoke plumes arouse our suspicion.

It will be a matter of taste and opinion as to whether Kim has gone overboard with the continuing turns that arrive right up until the final moments and the wonderful ruse I mentioned at the start of this review. Personally I found it riveting to be kept guessing but I can see how it might have felt the credibility of the plot was being stretched too far.

For a first time effort though, Kim ensures loose threads are kept to a minimum and any cross referencing holds up to scrutiny but it is the never ending parade of cast members that getting involved that gives this a feeling of mild contrivance. Ji-eun is a character that should have been involved more but is absent for a huge chunk of the film, one  notable oversight.

Direction is confident and intuitive in building the drama and making the key scenes look good in keeping the surprises coming, and his cast oblige by giving the characters the extra fleshing out they need beyond what the script give them. Jo Eun-ji and Lee Na-ra are stuck with rather familiar tropes, the former quite comical, leaving it to Oh Man-seok and Ji Hyun-woo to carry the load.  

True Fiction is a promising and well-made debut for Kim with enough clever hooks in the story to keep us guessing, but displays a rookie eagerness for throwing too much into the mix in need of a little tempering. Interesting to see where Kim goes next.