Few films grab you from the opening shot in the manner of The Last Witness. The most ambitious work in director Lee Doo-yong’s long filmography opens with two murders in quick succession, and then pulls the audience quickly into an investigation by the detective Oh Byeong-ho. Oh is young, impulsive and determined, and he quickly latches onto a trail of clues. But he has no idea how deeply he will be drawn into a vortex of past crimes and betrayals that stretch back to the Korean War.
The Last Witness is much more than a simple detective story. Shot in the aftermath of President Park Chung-hee’s assassination in 1979, the film represents an effort to confront and unearth South Korea’s troubled past. This intention can be read in a surprisingly direct opening title card that is signed in the director’s name: “I want to talk candidly about the truth and lies of the past, through one detective’s tenacious efforts to protect the innocent. Both the story and the images are dark. I hope that such darkness will disappear in the 1980s.”
Although the film is bursting with well-drawn characters, the figure of Detective Oh, played with an offhand swagger by popular star Ha Myung-joong, holds a unique place in Korean cinema. As he relentlessly pursues his investigation, he uncovers dark secrets but also becomes increasingly burdened by the crimes he exposes. In a spiritual sense, he seems to be taking on the sins of the past. At the same time, in disobeying orders and responding to violence with violence, he becomes a bit of an outlaw himself.
Described by contemporary director Ryoo Seung-wan as perhaps the best Korean film ever made, The Last Witness features haunting, dark imagery and a propulsive energy that makes its 157-minute running time feel shorter than many 90-minute features. Yet it remains little known outside of Korea, in part due to its complicated copyright status that makes it difficult to arrange screenings. Newly restored by the Korean Film Archive, this film is a treasure waiting to be discovered.