‘Innocence’ begins intriguingly with a funeral in a backwater small town, whereupon the supercilious village mayor (Huh Jun-ho) and a number of the local townsfolk are poisoned after drinking rice wine laced with pesticide. The suspect is none other than the deceased’s wife Hwa-ja (Bae Jong-ok), who is taken into custody and promptly charged with the heinous act.
As you would expect, the subsequent plotting will unveil just who the real culprit is, with writer-director Park Sang-hyun opting to do so through a combination of courtroom and investigative drama. Both are driven by the brilliant young lawyer Jung-in (Shin Hye-sun), who returns from Seoul to her birthplace when she hears about the case and then decides to take over from the incompetent lawyer engaged by Hwa-ja’s sister.
Jung-in also happens to be Hwa-ja’s daughter, so it isn’t just any life that is in her hands but in fact that of her mother. There is good reason why she had not returned prior for her father’s wake, and revisiting her painful past that had led to her leaving her hometown as a teenager is one of the poignant pleasures of this well-crafted mystery thriller.
Oh yes, the question of ‘who did it’ is probably less important than ‘why it had happened in the first place’, and over the riveting course of two hours, we are led on a viscerally and emotionally gripping journey of greed, guilt and reconciliation. Jung-in’s relationship with her mother is one major dimension, which also concerns her autistic younger brother Jung-soo (Hong Kyung); and without spoiling anything, let’s just say the secrets from her past will form a pivotal basis for the surprising yet affecting conclusion.
The other dimension concerns the mayor’s shady dealings with Jung-in’s father and a bunch of local village folk, all of whom used to be miners before there was nothing left to mine. As with such tales, money and power are the reasons why once-firm friends turn against one another, and even though the revelation here isn’t quite so shocking, the twists and turns are still more than engaging to hold your attention.
What is perhaps more significant is how the two subplots tie in together with each other, which lends added poignancy to the fate which the young Jung-in had suffered at the hands of an uncaring and physically abusive father that ultimately led to her running away from home. It should come as no surprise that mother and daughter do eventually make up, but how Jung-in comes to terms with her professional and personal lives is something the story manages with deftness and finesse.
In what is her first leading role, actress Shin Hye-sun shines with nuance and poise. She doesn’t over play her character’s steeliness and knows just when to play up Jung-in’s vulnerabilities especially with regard to her mother’s condition. Shin holds her own against the deliciously cunning Huh, and the courtroom scenes between them as lawyer and witness crackle with tension and suspense.
That it may not boast a big-name cast means it’s all too easy to lose sight of ‘Innocence’ amidst the flurry of Korean movies hitting our screens over the past few weeks, but you’ll do well not to dismiss this well-plotted drama. It is paced with momentum, packed with good surprises, and nicely executed to deliver an emotional wallop towards the end. In fact, we would go so far as to say that it is one of the finest Korean movies we’ve seen this year, so don’t be guilty of letting it slip you by.
Review by moviexclusive