The Woman in the White Car is an engrossing mystery thriller with a plot of constantly contorting details, but it is bogged down by genre trappings and cheap gimmicks.
One very early shot in The Woman in the White Car is of a full-to-the-brim coffee cup carelessly placed on the edge of a counter, with its precarious, teetering position a perfect setup for what’s to come. With the plot’s true events kept vague as its Rashomon-type plot evolves, The Woman in the White Car rarely lets up on its tension or intrigue, particularly in its opening stages. There is always that feeling that things are either about to go wrong or are not quite as they seem. It might be stuffed with clichéd procedural crime elements, dull techniques and have an underwhelming conclusion, but it more than succeeds in its unrelenting attempt at creating something wholly watchable and rather riveting.
To give away too much of the plot would do a disservice to The Woman in the White Car: all you need to know, really, is that main character Do-kyung (Jung Ryeowon, Gate) arrives at a hospital with her injured sister and the mystery thickens from there. Lead cop on the case is Lee Jung-eun’s Hyun-ju, with Lee bringing as much as magnetism and intensity to the screen as she did as the doomed housekeeper in Parasite (2019). With uncertainty surrounding Do-kyung’s retelling of events and her sister still unconscious, Hyun-Ju’s investigation becomes a tangled web of misinformation and unreliability. It is an effective plot device inspired by the Rashomon effect, a term derived from Akira Kurosawa’s 1950 film of the same name and used to describe events which are presented in contradictory ways by different characters.
Unlike Rashomon though, which gives audiences the chance to experience each viewpoint freely, The Woman in the White Car seems far too keen to hold the viewers’ hand, guiding you with stale, simplified voiceovers. More trust in the audience would have created something more compelling, and even if the viewer couldn’t gather every little detail independently, a bit of ambiguity in crime thrillers never goes amiss – just ask Memories of Murder (2003) or Zodiac (2007). Still though, The Woman in the White Car takes a classic storytelling device and for the most part creates something compelling; especially in its earlier stages, the film is utterly thrilling.
Whilst the complex structure of Seo Ja-Yeun’s screenplay is handled well by director Christine Hye-Jin Ko, too many of The Woman in the White Car’s elements are either clichéd or unimaginative. An original score of forgettable procedural crime music, overly dramatic zooms, cloying slow motion, and an overriding melodrama reduce the tension, and eventually the film starts to feel shallow, adding nothing new to the mystery thriller genre nor presenting itself with any unique style. An aspect ratio that changes between the present-day investigation and the various retellings of the events is useful as a framing device and almost lifts The Woman in the White Car out of its sloppiness, but ultimately, as the film withers to its conclusion, you are left wanting more.
Despite its flaws, The Woman in the White Car remains highly watchable, and its delightfully twisty plot and how it is told is invigorating. Jung brings an emotional rawness and unpredictability to her role as Do-kyung, whilst Lee is simply terrific as the policewoman dealing with the case alongside her own personal demons. Unlike in other South Korean mysteries such as Memories of Murder, the cops in The Woman in the White Car actually have some competency and, more importantly, seem to care about the victims involved.
After twisting and turning so much though, the film’s conclusion feels surprisingly flat, especially when compared to other crime thrillers or mysteries from South Korea such as the aforementioned Bong Joon-ho masterpiece, any film from the oeuvre of Park Chan-wook or The Wailing. Like the film’s characters, your recollection of The Woman in the White Car’s events might be a bit blurry and distorted; the morning after you’ll certainly remember having a good time, but you might not be able to recall much more than that.
The Woman in the White Car premiered at the 2022 BFI London Film Festival on October 7, 2022. Read our list of films to watch at the London Film Festival this year.