Moby Dick or 모비딕 (2011)
Moby Dick or 모비딕 (2011) is a rather curious film out of Korea that, under the general genre heading of a thriller, actually turns out to be a film about the South Korean political machinations against the North. For a moment, let’s travel back in time to 1984 when paranoia about the North/South relationship was a more real electoral issue. Before 1998, the general stance was confrontation. There was to be no rapprochement with the North and, in the event there was provocation, the South would make an armed response. The intention was to signal the South wanted to maintain the status quo, fearing the North’s hostility if it believed the South wished to absorb the North into a united Korea. In 1998, Kim Dae-jung was elected and, under the so-called Sunshine Policy, separated the politics and the economics. Business co-operation was encouraged and tourism allowed. The Policy was finally abandoned as a failure in 2010.
This made the question of the relationship with the North a major issue in the elections throughout the 1980s and up to 1998 when the policy changed. This film assumes there was a conspiracy to incite the government into maintaining a hardline stance. We begin with what’s reported as a terrorist bombing in the South on the Balam Bridge approaching a major entertainment area and theme park just outside Seoul. The authorities are on the scene surprisingly quickly and, with equal speed, begin suggesting that three undercover operatives from the North were attempting to drive a car bomb into the theme park when it went off prematurely.
The reason for the title of the film is that, like Captain Ahab in the original novel by Herman Melville, the primary newspaper reporters are obsessed with finding out the truth behind every story they investigate. We start with Lee Bang-Woo (Hwang Jung-Min) who thinks he has a scoop on the Bridge story but finds he’s been beaten to filing it with the editor by a newly recruited reporter, Son Jin-Ki (Kim Sang-Ho). The reason for the newbie’s success is that he has a highly placed source who feeds him “reliable” information. When Lee Bang-Woo is approached by an old school friend, Yoon-Hyuk (Jin Goo), he realises he’s been handed a cache of potentially vital information by a whistleblower. To make sense of it, he overcomes his jealousy of Son Jin-Ki and pulls in Sung Hyo-Kwan (Kim Min-Hee). The information is both printed and in the form of floppy disks. Unfortunately, they don’t have the four character password for the disks. To complicate the investigation, Yoon-Hyuk refuses to say who he was working for. They check the military register and he’s not still a member of the army nor is he listed as a deserter. Yet he seems to have been acting as some kind of spy on South Korean territory. Not convinced of his reliability, the three reporters decide to investigate on their own. Except it rapidly becomes apparent that they are under surveillance. The original disks are stolen and they are threatened.
In the meantime, we’re allowed glimpses of secret meetings and an undercover squad that works out of the back rooms of a club. In parallel, Lee Bang-Woo dreams of being underwater but aware of a vast whale swimming close by him. He’s too close to see anything other than immediate details. Without perspective, there’s no way he can estimate its size nor what it might be capable of. Although the metaphor is somewhat heavy-handed, the direction and script from Park In-Je maintains reasonable intelligence and a good pace. It succeeds because unlike Hollywood efforts like the rather pathetic Enemy of the State (1998), there’s no attempt to embellish a simple story with science fictional surveillance technology nor engage in loud and interminable car chases. This has moments of stress and tension but, overall, it retains a great sense of realism. Allowing for one escape to be fortuitous, you feel it could all have happened. Except I’m in two minds about the ending. The response of the airline to the report of a terrorist threat is to allow the plane to fly. There’s no suggestion the aircraft was searched. Apart from that, the plot seems to play fair with the audience and holds attention.
So putting all this together, we have a shadowy group of businessmen and selected government officials determined to force confrontation with the North. The plot is both to fake espionage and engage in terrorist outrages in the South to implicate the North. Naturally, the group is somewhat upset when the reporters begin to investigate. Apart from the ending, everyone acts with reasonable integrity. The conspirators do not wish to kill indiscriminately. It’s the sacrifice of the few for the greater good. It’s credible they would hesitate to kill the three journalists. This makes Moby Dick or 모비딕 a reasonably enjoyable if somewhat low-key film.