AFI FEST 2015: The Liar, by Scott Nye
Modern culture encourages greed and envy. This is not merely an “American” or even a “Western” phenomenon. This is global to the civilized world, and deeply embedded. So let’s say you’re working a menial job as a nurse at a dermatology clinic (that’s really more of a beauty spa), helping rich women get rid of pimples. And you’re living with your brother and sister, neither of whom are eager to work themselves, in a terrible apartment. Your mom has checked out of supporting you at all. Dad is who-the-hell-knows-where. You do your job well every day, but have little hope of “getting ahead” in any capacity. So you start allowing yourself a bit of fantasy. You find some decent clothes and poke around at expensive electronics stores. You go to a few open houses for places you could never afford. You tour imported car lots. Maybe a salesperson takes you for a housewife. Maybe you let them. Maybe you place a few orders, knowing you have time to cancel them before paying. If your coworkers start to get curious, you can just say you’re engaged to a guy with a stable career. But maybe this is all starting to catch up with you.
Advertised in the AFI listings as a “tightly wound thriller,” The Liar doesn’t immediately come out the gate as either, but it isn’t until the final third or so that you suddenly realize how methodically writer/director Kim Dong-myung has built this world for Ah-young (Kim Kkobbi). No scene is wasted, every small slight or offhand remark coming back around to haunt her. Even a mention of a parking level in the first scene of the film becomes a way to establish location later on. Kim hasn’t merely constructed a clock, though, instead using these structural devices to mirror her protagonist’s own carefully-constructed life. The bricks are introduced so casually that their burden seems incidental.
Playing with our trained desire to see only the best things happen to someone trying to work their way up in the world, Kim variously indulges and rebukes our sympathies, occasionally outright letting us share the thrill of Ah-young’s deceptions. When Ah-young visits her actual boyfriend’s (Chun Sin-hwan) apartment for the first time, we’re invited to share her disdain for the fact that he has to move aside an entire coffee table of dirty dishes for them to even walk through. We even get a bit of a kick out of her demanding he wear a suit so she can photograph them together and pass him off as her made-up fiance. Kim gives us this moment to think “you deserve better than this,” before Ah-young uses him for an hour or so of the high life – having sex at a nice hotel – only to walk out on him while he’s in the bathroom.
Kim pushes her premise all the way, never relenting in showing how destructive this life of lies becomes for Ah-young, trusting that her constant presence will be enough to gain our trust and compassion. Kim Kkobbi is in every scene of the film, and is absolutely compelling all the way through, adeptly performing for how her character is perceived in each situation. Only slight glances belie her true nature, the tenuousness of her many false promises. When the screenplay calls for her to explode in a few instances, mostly around her sister, Kim does so with a sense of bottled-up anger that, even then, she’s not completely unleashing. What may seem at first a weakness of the actress reveals itself to be an intelligent choice when she finally really loses it all. This is a character who’s used to approaching every interaction with a degree of reserve; it’s only natural that her outbursts would be similarly confined, until she snaps.
This film had already thoroughly enthralled me, to the point that I was willing to accept whichever of the two or three finales it had seemed destined for. But even after an hour and a half of expert drama, I underestimated Kim, who concocted the most unexpectedly beautiful conclusion. At the Q&A afterward, her explanation of it seems somewhat less viable, but this is of little importance. The film itself is a marvel, a true interrogation of a person and a society and the values so many of us unconsciously hold but outwardly look down upon. This was shown in the “Breakthrough” section at AFI FEST, and I sincerely hope that designation will prove true.
AFI FEST 2015 Presented by Audi continues through November 12th. The Liar does not have any more scheduled screenings, though it’s eligible for an award in the Breakthrough section; if it wins there, it will screen again on the 12th. It does not currently have distribution in the United States.