The 2017 New York Asian Film Festival is underway, and we at ComicsVerse will be there to share all our favorites from the fest.

A pair of mysteries from the Philippines (BIRDSHOT) and South Korea (THE TRUTH BENEATH) manage to surprise and subvert with clever plotting. These two films use intriguing mysteries as a gateway to deeper ideas about our relationship with social structures.

BIRDSHOT (4 1/2 out of 5 stars)

Is it possible, in such a corrupt world, to be a good person? Or is goodness a Sisyphean task we all undertake, making compromises along the way toward outcomes we deem to be morally just? In BIRDSHOT, the question of morality is so murky it can barely be understood by its characters. 

It’s worth saying up front that BIRDSHOT is a difficult film to review. Director Mikahal Red has crafted a film that takes on many different genres — crime drama, thriller, coming-of-age story — only to subvert expectations that come with those genres. It may be better to go into this film cold without even reading the vague plot details below.

Initially, the film focuses on two parallel narratives. One is a father and daughter who live near a nature reserve. The other is a pair of police officers investigating the mysterious disappearance of a bus full of passengers. At first these two stories could not seem more disparate, but the film builds a creeping sense of dread as you wonder where these two stories might finally overlap. In the meantime, Red fills the frame with beautiful natural vistas, a garden of Eden with sin lurking under its soil.

CLICK: Want more thrillers? Check out our analysis of Jeremy Saulnier’s films!

The collision of these worlds is innocuous enough. The daughter, Mya (Mary Joy Apostol), shoots an endangered species of bird. When she tries to cover it up with her father, Diego (Manuel Aquino), the police immediately begin to investigate. The officers fit archetypal law enforcement roles: There’s the cynical veteran, Mendoza (John Arcilla), and his new partner, the naive Domingo (Arnold Reyes). We’ve seen this dynamic play out numerous times before in films like LA CONFIDENTIAL or TRAINING DAY. However, Red imbues these characters with a level of moral murkiness that redefines the narrative of the film.

BIRDSHOT becomes a damning critique of the Filipino justice system, but the ideas reach across the seas to America as well. Those who are wealthy are free to commit acts of unspeakable cruelty while those who are poor must face the brunt of misplaced aggression from those with authority. Mendoza and Domingo have hit a dead end in their investigation into the missing passengers. In most crime thrillers, this would be the moment where the hopeful cop’s moral compass inspires his once cynical partner. Instead, Domingo succumbs to the corruption around him. These two personify impotent authoritarian rage as they try to enforce control on the humble lives of the nature preserve’s caretakers.

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Mya and Diego both live isolated lives away from society. The film opens with Diego attempting to teach Mya the proper way to hunt. He wants to see her survive in the natural world, but Mya struggles to adapt. Their transcendentalist way of life is under threat from the outside forces of the industrial world. Diego also compromises himself in the name of his daughter. For all of Diego’s parental efforts, he cannot shelter Mya from the invasive influence of the modern world.

The film takes numerous twists and turns, but half the enjoyment of the film is discovering how they will unfold. Suffice it to say BIRDSHOT delivers a strong new voice in the world of international cinema. It’s a complex and engrossing film that will leave you questioning the sanctity of morality and whether any of us can survive in a harsh world without compromising our character.

THE TRUTH BENEATH (4 1/2 out of 5 stars)

Art does not exist in a vacuum, and it would be wrong of any audience member to not see THE TRUTH BENEATH as a commentary on the role of women (or shameful lack thereof) in modern politics. The film is a thriller about the use of women as political currency and the indifference of male politicians toward female suffering.

Director Lee Kyoung-mi, who co-wrote the script with Park Chan-wook, crafts a tale that will seem familiar to any fan of South Korean thrillers. There is a terrible crime, a layered and complex conspiracy, and a protagonist at the center of it going a bit mad in search of the truth.

In THE TRUTH BENEATH our investigator is Yeon-hong (Son Ye-jin), the wife of upstart politician Jong-chan (Kim Ju-hyeok). Their troubled daughter (Shin Ji-hoon) suddenly vanishes just as the campaign begins. Initially, her disappearance is dismissed as one of her many acts of teenage rebellion. However, as more time passes, the more concerned her mother becomes with discovering what happened to her daughter.

CLICK: Like South Korean cinema? Check out our review of Bong Joon-ho’s OKJA!

Kim Ju-hyeok’s performance as Yeon-hong is truly a tour-de-force. She becomes a hurricane of tenacity and grief. You want to see her discover the truth as much as you hope she will stop this quest and get help. Her frustrations in her quest come from her husband’s refusal to stop his campaign. In fact, the campaign attempts to mine the daughter’s disappearance for political sympathy points.

There’s an ongoing plot thread about Yeon-hong being a threat to her husband’s campaign because she is an “outsider” who did not grow up in Seoul. Their perceived biases cover up what really concerns them, which is Yeon-hong’s refusal to obey her husband’s wishes. She continues to investigate despite numerous warnings from many (male) authority figures to stop. The subtext here is clear: ignore the ravings of the “delirious” woman while we handle the important stuff.

Lee’s film is packed with emotional gut punches of suspense and revelation. These moments push the plot forward, but also give thematic weight to the pulpy mystery at the film’s center. As the layers of the mystery are revealed, the essential “truth beneath” is that men in power only see women as objects to use in pursuit of power.

This relevance elevates THE TRUTH BENEATH to the status of great Korean thrillers like OLDBOY or I SAW THE DEVIL. In fact, it would make a perfect pairing with LADY VENGEANCE, Lee’s previous collaboration with Park Chan-wook. THE TRUTH BENEATH will draw you in with its mystery, and get under your skin with its unflinching look at how women are treated in and out of the political arena.

Check out the rest of ComicsVerse’s coverage of the 2017 New York Asian Film Festival!

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