SEOUL, June 30 (Yonhap) -- An isolated tiny farm village where no bus or train stops is where Hae-guk's (Park Hae-il) religious father had lived for 30 years after leaving his family. At his father's funeral, the son meets the village people for the first time and senses an ominous atmosphere from their overly vigilant nature.
The men, all single from a divorce or a breakup, are eerily united around a frail old man, the cop-turned-godly village head Yong-deok (Jung Jae-young). All their houses lie in the direction of his hilltop house so that he can see what's going on in the village like the back of his hand.
Hae-guk questions his father's choice to give up his whole life to preach to the villagers. Suspicious and distressed, the unwelcome guest decides to settle there to dig deeper into his father's death.
Kang Woo-suk's new thriller "Moss" spews chilling suspense and intrigue that keep the audience guessing throughout the story, owing largely in part to Yoon Tae-ho's prize-winning Internet cartoon of the same title, on which the film is based. In terms of genre, it breaks from the veteran director's trademark action comedies like "Two Cops" (1993), the "Public Enemy" series (2001), machoistic drama "Silmido" (2003) and nationalistic "Korean Peninsula" (2006) and takes on character-driven suspense.
Hae-guk's father Mok-hyeong (Huh Joon-ho), returning from the Vietnam War, abandons all of his worldly connections and isolates himself in a small prayer house where he dreams of building a heaven for wary souls. He soon has many followers who give up their money and wealth to enter heaven, while Yong-deok, a crooked cop who later becomes the village head, conspires with the owner of the prayer house to snatch the offerings.
Falsely incriminated, Mok-hyeong lands in jail, but his ascetic existence still wields supernatural power over inmates. The cop afterwards makes a stealthy proposal: let's build a new village "for those who want to be born again."
The cop scouts an odd bunch of misfits and thugs to the village in exchange for exemption from their criminal liability. Mok-hyeong tries to breathe a "born-again" life into them, but the village evolves in a quite different way. Yong-deok, the cop now acting as the village head, becomes a powerful landlord accumulating wealth through the help of his men, and the ethical demise of the folks compels the preacher to pick up a dagger.
As his son explores the preacher's past, the story reveals the entwined nature of human good and evil through the changing behaviors of the faithful preacher and the vicious cop. The tightly-knit plot holds the audience to guesswork about the cause of Mok-hyeong's death and the village's mystery. The acting is fine -- at one point, the eyes of Yong-deok piercing through darkness sends chills down the spine of the viewers.
Though riveting, it is sometimes questionable whether the story line is enough for audiences who have not read the cartoon to piece things together. Hae-guk's frustrating past as an urban loser and the village men's piteous backgrounds have been dropped in the movie.
Known for action comedies, the director said he worked under extreme pressure to compete with the cartoon's popularity that has drawn more than 36 million hits.
"The cartoon has attracted legions of fans, and some of them attacked me, saying 'why is it you making the film?'" Kang said after a press premier in Seoul on Tuesday.
"It's not true that I deliberately wanted to make something grand or meaningful," he said. "As I got older, I wanted to avoid things that I have already done. I wanted to do something new and human, a film that offers food for thought."
"Moss" produced by Cinema Service and distributed by CJ Entertainment is set for cinema release on July 16.