South Korean film “Go Back” seems to be a mystery drama on the surface but then turns out to be less about what exactly happened. While we come to have a pretty good idea on that even before its first act is over, the movie patiently delves deeper into the dark and harrowing human elements surrounding its mystery, and that leads us to more reflection on its relevant social issues including child abuse and sexism.
The movie opens with an odd new report which baffles not only the police but also the public. A letter has been just delivered to a TV news channel, and its writer, who claims to have kidnapped some young girl, demands the ransom of 10 million won, but the condition on the ransom is rather strange to say the least. For no apparent reason, the writer specifies that the ransom should be collected from the public donations of thousands of people willing to pay 1,000 won per each, and this certainly draws more attention and curiosity from the media and the public as days go by.
Because the letter is accompanied with a certain object which strongly suggests that this is not just a silly joke at all, and the police soon embark on finding the identity of the kidnapped girl in question, and a small police station where a young policewoman named Ji-won (Ha Yoon-kyung) works is no exception. She and several others including her direct boss are busy with checking out anything which may be associated with the case, but, so far, there has not been much progress yet.
Meanwhile, Ji-won comes to think more about her accident encounter with one young woman, which occurred around the time when the kidnapping case was reported on the media. Although Ji-won was off-duty at that time, that young woman in question somehow recognized Ji-won, and Ji-won sensed something strange from that young woman’s rather disturbed state. In addition, Ji-won subsequently saw her leaving along with a little girl, so she tries to bring some attention to this, but she is casually disregarded by her direct boss, who seems to care about her but is not totally free of that common sexism of your average South Korean males.
Of course, that young woman, who turns out to be a social service worker named Oh-soon (Park Ha-sun), is really involved with the case (This is not a spoiler at all, by the way), and Ji-won’s following struggle to go deeper into the case is intercut with the flashback scenes showing how Oh-soon got herself involved in the case. Because of her painful personal experience of domestic abuse, Oh-soon has been quite sincere and passionate about helping abused kids out there, but she often gets frustrated and exasperated as facing the fact that there are not many things she and her direct boss can do in numerous cases. In case of one incident of a severely injured boy, it goes without saying that he was abused by his parent, but, to the frustration of Oh-soon and her direct boss, there is no incriminating evidence against his parent, and his parent adamantly denies everything.
In the meantime, Oh-soon comes to care a lot about Bo-ra (Gam So-hyun), a 12-year-old girl who has lived alone with her abusive alcoholic father since her mother’s death. Oh-soon instantly senses from the beginning that Bo-ra has not been happy at all, and she also notices some glaring sign of domestic abuse, but, again, there is nothing much she can do for helping Bo-ra.
Oh-soon’s growing frustration along the plot resonates with how Ji-won is often disregarded by other police officers. At one point in the middle of the story, she notices a suspicious young man who is apparently stalking his ex-girlfriend, and she tries to help that girl as much as she can, but that inadvertently leads to a very bad situation while she unjustly gets harsh words from local cops. She simply wants to protect and serve as required by her profession, but no one takes her seriously at all, and there is a hurtful moment when her direct boss reveals why he has not allowed her to do night patrol.
The two main storylines of the movie eventually converge at the expected narrative point, but the screenplay by Seo Eun-young takes its time before its melodramatic finale. Although this part feels heavy-handed at times and you may not be that surprised by what is revealed around the end of the film, the movie earns its tears and emotions at least, and you will probably wonder what may happen next after its very last shot.
The main cast members of the film are solid on the whole. While Ha Yoon-kyung earnestly holds the ground as demanded, Park Ha-sun is effective as a woman who cares a bit too much, and young actress Gam So-hyun is also fine as another crucial part of the story. In case of the other main cast members of the film, Jung Eun-pyo and Kim Pyung-jo provide some small moments of humor to the story, and Seo Young-hwa, who previously appeared in Hong Sang-soo’s “The Woman Who Ran” (2020), deserves to be mentioned as Oh-soon’s sympathetic direct boss.
Considering its main subjects, “Go Back” is not something you can casually watch on Sunday afternoon, but it is worthwhile to watch thanks to its competent storytelling and good performances, and it will remind you of how important it is for us to stand by and listen to the weak and vulnerable. It is a tough stuff indeed, but it engaged me while provoking some thoughts from me, and that is enough for now.