Innocence (2020) ☆☆☆(3/4): A daughter who returns to her shady hometown

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South Korean movie “Innocence” is a compelling mix of detached courtroom mystery drama and heated family melodrama. Although the mystery at the heart of the film is a bit too easily solved, the movie still holds our attention as its smart and unflappable heroine tries hard to prove the innocence of one of her estranged family members, and it is often entertaining to watch how she fights against many daunting obstacles via her will and intelligence.

The movie starts with a seemingly plain but increasingly tense long-take sequence set inside a shabby house located in some rural area of South Korea. The house belongs to an old woman named Hwa-ja (Bae Jong-ok) and her recently diseased husband, and many town people including Mayor Choo (Heo Joon-ho) visit as Hwa-ja and her mentally disabled son Jeong-soo (Hong Kyung) are holding a funeral at their house. As Mayor Choo and several other guys drink and talk together for a while, we come to sense something fishy among them, but then they all suddenly become very ill.

Shortly after they are hurriedly taken to a local hospital, it turns out that somebody put a herbicide the rice wine they drank. The local police subsequently arrest Hwa-ja, and the news of her arrest on TV happens to catch the attention of her daughter Jeong-in (Shin Hye-sun), who left the town and her family many years ago and is now a successful lawyer working in a prestigious law firm in Seoul. Although she has never contacted her family since she left the town, she instantly goes down to her hometown without any hesitation, and then she embarks on examining her mother’s case as a lawyer specializing in criminal law.

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At first, the case looks like a simple case of poisoning, but Jeong-in soon comes to notice the numerous suspicious aspects of the case. A local detective assigned to the case and his men are pretty sloppy in their casual handling of the crime scene, and they are already ready to close the case after somehow getting the confession from Jeong-in’s mother. Although it is revealed that Jeong-in’s mother has had a serious case of dementia, that does not change their view on the case at all, and the same thing can be said about a local lawyer hired by Jeong-in’s aunt, who does not try that much for his client on the first day of the trial.

Naturally becoming quite exasperated about what is going on around her mother, Jeong-in eventually decides to handle the matter for herself, and we see what a good lawyer she is. While often emphasizing her mother’s deteriorating mental condition, she also skillfully nullifies a number of key evidences and testimonies one by one, and it looks like her mother will be free at least during the rest of the trial.

However, this is not much of a spoiler at all because it is already revealed in the trailer of the movie, there are a bunch of people who are not so pleased with Jeong-in’s involvement in the case, and the movie enters the territory of country noir as Jeong-in’s tenacious investigation leads her to the dark sides of her hometown. It is apparent from the beginning that Mayor Choo wants to close the case as soon as possible for covering up something, and it looks like a recent shady backdoor dealing of his is simply the tip of whatever he and his associates are trying to hide.

Not so surprisingly, Mayor Choo has some strings to pull for blocking Jeong-in by any means necessary. The prosecutor assigned to the case has already been in his pocket, and this obnoxious dude is willing to do anything because of what he may benefit from a rising local politician like Mayor Choo. In addition, there are also goons ready to do some dirty works for Mayor Choo, and they surely show Jeong-in that she may lose her life at any chance if she keeps meddling with the case.

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Nevertheless, Jeong-in does not step back at all for doing what should be done for her mother. While often reminded of her deeply unhappy past with her family, she comes to realize that she still cares about her mother a lot despite many years of estrangement between them, and we accordingly get a tearful melodramatic moment later in the story when she is devastated to see how foggy her mother’s mind has become.

What is eventually revealed and then resolved during its last act may not surprise you a lot, the movie keeps engaging us as driven by the strong performance from Shin Hye-sun, who is very good as a strong-willed and resourceful professional who is not easily daunted by her opponents. While never softening her character’s tough and abrasive sides, Shin steadily carries the film, and she is particularly wonderful especially during a brief but crucial scene where her character becomes conflicted for a while before making an important decision on the case.

The supporting performers around Shin are also effective on the whole. While Bae Jong-ok is utterly heartbreaking during several key moments of hers in the film, Heo Joon-ho is seedy and despicable as the main villain of the story, and Hong Kyung, Tae Hang-ho, Ko Chang-seok provide some comic relief while functioning as a few decent characters in the story.

In conclusion, “Innocence”, which is the debut feature film of director/writer Park Sang-hyun, is a well-made genre product packed with enough interest and suspense, and it is certainly worthwhile to watch for Shin’s performance. The movie indeed gives her a big chance to shine, and I sincerely hope this may lead her to more good things to come in the future.

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