[This review was originally written as part of the ongoing series of Korean Movie Night NY screenings and then showed up again during our coverage of the New York Korean Film Festival. It is being reposted due to the film's DVD release, with an added opinion about the film's new translation.]
Moss is yet another example of Korean filmmakers proving that they are the masters of all things action. Frankly, I wouldn't be surprised if everyone was bored of me gushing about just how great action scenes in Korean films are. But that isn't going to stop me from gushing. My job as a reviewer is to tell you about the quality/experience of a movie and whether or not it is worth your time. Sometimes giving a recommendation is simple. Sometimes it's not.
This one is simple: see it.
Moss (Iggi | 이끼)
Moss tells the story of Ryu Hae-Kuk (Park Hae-Il), son of a religious figure (Heo Jun-Ho) who has had a major impact on the people he met. His father dies suddenly and Ryu, who is from Seoul, goes to the village where his father lived to wrap up any important affairs. When he gets there, he meets the village chief (Jung Jae-Young) the suspicious behavior of, well, everybody convinces him to stay and find out what's actually going on. Sure, it sounds like the plot of an incredibly generic pseudo-detective story, but it's so much more than that. The devil is in the details, as they say, and the details are what make this film great.
Perhaps the most impressive thing about Moss is the way it turns borderline cliche moments on their heads. There are some honestly shocking moments, and Ryu often finds himself is in legitimate danger. Not Hollywood "oh no, how will he ever escape!?" danger. Real, mortal danger. It definitely raises the stakes and makes everything much more thrilling. That's fitting, since it's a thriller at heart, but there are some nice, light-hearted moments to mix up the (oftentimes brutal) action and suspense. An early scene features a man repeating kicking four tied up men in the testicles and hitting them with a large branch. It's funny, mostly because they all deserved it, but it also foreshadows all of the violent intensity that is yet to come.
My biggest problem with the story is the way it skips time early on. The beginning of the film (first fifteen minutes or so) tells the story of how Ryu's father and the village chief met. It's but it goes from them being in their forties/fifties to Ryu's father dying of (presumably) old age. It took me five to ten minutes to figure out where everything was on the timeline. Once I got my bearings, everything was fine, and later time jumps were handled more delicately, but it's definitely something to be aware of.
But let's talk about the action, because that's what I gushed about in the intro. The violence is, to say the least, quite unpleasant. It's visceral, bloody, and disturbingly realistic. Although most of the fights are primarily hand to hand, but there are moments where weapons are involved that add a new layer of horror to the whole thing. The visceral nature of the violence helps the suspense escalate as well, because it gives a very real sense of the danger lurking around the village. Excellent direction mixed with fantastic acting makes every kick, punch, and stab work as well as they possibly could.
As you might expect, both the sounds and the visuals are amazing. The music is uniformly great, underscoring the mood and adding another (wonderful) layer to everything. The cinematography is just as good. The way the camera moves and shows the environments is very different from most other films (in a good way) and the framing is as good as you could ask for. I have no complaints there either.
If you haven't picked up on it yet, I really liked Moss. I loved it, actually. Really loved it. Sure, that time skip was an annoyance, but since you're aware of it, you won't be so confused. I expect everyone who reads this review to see the movie. There is so much to the story that I would love to talk about, but I think I have said enough. Moss is an amazing film. That's all there is to it.
So see it. Now that it's on Netflix Instant and DVD, you really have no excuse.
Subtitle opinion update: I rarely address translations in reviews (unless the translation actively lessens the film's impact), so I didn't mention the occasionally iffy subtitles in the original release that I saw (and I assume is on Netflix). Fortunately, I can report that things are much cleaner in the DVD release by 5 Points Pictures. There were a couple of phrases that seemed somewhat off to me, but they may have been stylistically stilted rather than a poor translation. Given the uneasy nature of many of the characters, I wouldn't really be surprised either way. Given that the film is basically the same length as The Dark Knight Rises, though, a couple of oddities (if they actually can be considered such) are totally understandable.
Without any knowledge of Korean, I can only assume that the dialogue is an accurate representation of what's being said, but I can say that it all seems to be in order, and most of the apparently important text onscreen is translated, which is something I always appreciate. In fact, there's one significant moment that I picked up on this go-around that I didn't see last time, and that's due to the translation of the text on a cell phone. So the new translation is definitely an improvement. It's not a revelatory new experience or anything, but as far as definitive English versions go, I can't imagine any will beat this new one by 5PP (unless they release a Blu-ray version, which they should).