South Korean film “The Day I Died: Unclosed Case” is a mystery noir drama which gradually reveals its weary but palpitating heart behind its seemingly detached attitude. Although the mystery of its story is a bit too simple for some of you, the movie diligently focuses on its troubled detective heroine and her dogged pursuit of truth as slowly revealing to us a lot about her state of mind as well as her case, and it surely earns its narrative payoff around the arrival point of her gloomy emotional journey.
During the first act of the movie, we get to know the ongoing predicaments of Kim Hyeon-soo (Kim Hye-soo), a female detective who had a very unfortunate accident which can considerably jeopardize her career. When she returns to her workplace, Hyeon-soo is warmly welcomed by her direct superior, and she assures to her direct superior that she has recovered enough during her brief absence after that accident, but her direct superior reminds her that she will soon have to face an internal investigation committee on that accident anyway.
Nevertheless, her direct superior assigns Hyeon-soo to a case in the need of being closed as soon as possible. An adolescent girl who was a key witness for the case involved with her father was suddenly gone in the middle of her temporary stay in a remote island, and a note left by her clearly suggests that she committed suicide for understandable personal reasons. All Hyeon-soo has to do is checking whether there is not any big problem in closing the case, and her direct superior may give some help to her later if she does the job as well as wanted by her direct superior and others.
Like any good detective, Hyeon-soo looks into the circumstance surrounding that girl’s case step by step, and it looks like there is nothing surprising or baffling about the case. Before her father’s serious financial crime was exposed, Se-jin (Roh Jeong-eui) did not suspect her father at all, and she even fully cooperated with the police shortly after she happened to discover an incriminating evidence against him. After she was sent to that island for protection and recovery by the prosecution, she was often monitored by two police officers assigned to the case, and the video clips from several surveillance cameras placed in and around a house where she stayed do not show anything particularly suspicious.
As a part of her procedure, Hyeon-soo comes to that island, and she still cannot find any strange thing as getting some testimonies from the residents of that island. While Se-jin did not interact much with them as mostly staying in a house kindly provided to her, the people of that island did not have any problem with that at all, and, as shown from a flashback scene, they were all shocked when it looked like she committed suicide at a rocky cliff. They subsequently tried to find her body as much as they could, but, alas, the day when she was assumed to commit suicide was quite a stormy day, and her body has still not been found even at present.
It seems that there is nothing else Hyeon-soo has to do except closing the case as ordered, but she cannot help but become obsessed with small blank spots left here and there in the case. Why does the lawyer representing Se-jin’s only close living family member try to bribe Hyeon-soo while asking for a number of Se-jin’s personal items? Why has the girlfriend of Se-jin’s father stayed away from any contact even though she eventually turned out to be not associated with his crime at all? Why does one of the two police officers assigned to Se-jin refuse to talk with Hyeon-soo at any chance? And, above all, why did Se-jin not specify her suicide motive that much in her few last words?
While she keeps trying to find the answers for these and other questions, we come to have more understanding of the source of Hyeon-soo’s growing obsession. Besides feeling quite pressured about having to face the internal investigation committee sooner or later, she also has to deal with the stress from her rocky divorce process, and there is no one to lean on for her except a very close friend/colleague, who naturally becomes quite frustrated and exasperated to see her best friend becoming more self-destructive than before. Often feeling alone and depressed more than before, Hyeon-soo comes to identify more with Se-jin, and she adamantly continues to delve into the case for this unfortunate girl who really needed more attention and care.
The final act of the movie probably will not surprise you much if you are a seasoned connoisseur of mystery stories like me, but director/writer Park Ji-wan skillfully handles story and character development without any hiccup, and it is satisfying to see when everything in the story comes to make sense during the finale. Although the epilogue scene initially feels rather redundant, the movie wisely sticks to its low-key tone even at that point, and we are reminded of how much our heroine is changed at the end of the story.
As the center of the movie, Kim Hye-soo, who has been one of the most prominent South Korean actresses during last two decades, dutifully carries the movie via another strong performance of hers, and several other main performers in the film hold each own place well around her. While Roh Jeong-eui effectively hovers over the story as required, Kim Sun-young is solid as Hyeon-soo’s caring friend/colleague, and Lee Jung-eun, who gave a magnificent supporting performance in Bong Joon-ho’s Oscar-winning film “Parasite” (2019), is superlative in her nearly wordless acting.
Overall, “The Day I Died: Unclosed Case” is more like a character study instead of merely being your average police procedural, and Park, who previously made a couple of short films, makes a solid feature film debut here. Considering what is presented in the movie, she is a good filmmaker with considerable potentials in my trivial opinion, and I guess I can have some expectation on her next work in the future.