Directed by Lee Si-myung
Starring Jang Dong-gun, Toru Nakamura, Seo Jin-ho
By the time 2009: Lost Memories exposes itself in the final third, forgoing language and subtlety for foaming rabid nationalism, there may be a sense of relief, as its interpretation of the police procedural was laborious: a mystery unfolding poorly. This is an alternate history action-thriller which posits that Germany, not Japan, was hit by the atomic bomb, and as a consequence, Korea was never liberated. In the present day of near-future 2009, the “Japanese Bureau of Intelligence,” or JBI, battles an underground Korean terrorist cell in what would’ve been Seoul, digging up old ghosts for ethnically Korean agent Masayuki Sakamoto. It doesn’t sound so bad, though stories like these often comport with the air of persecution. I turned off the movie Olympus Has Fallen, about North Korean terrorists invading the White House, when the villain started beating up a female American politician in a much prolonged scene. My distaste for violence against women was matched by an uncomfortable suspicion of the filmmakers, that I should recognize this as perverse. The sight of an American public servant brought low, and by foreigners? Funnily enough, this abortive attempt at Olympus Has Fallen was days before the nativist insurrection at the Capitol.
I imagine the Korean filmmakers behind 2009 are students of film and film only, not of art or literature or history or anything which might have retroactively fixed a basic error, like a time traveler. The steely-blue look of contemporary Hong Kong cinema heralds the Mexican standoffs, and the story is a mash of Hollywood cliches: some Terminator, some 12 Monkeys, and a hell of a lot of detective mystery. Dialogue, character behavior, the language of the scenes themselves, they all mimic a vague understanding of how these pieces are supposed to be played — moments before they’re sabotaged by a contradiction or an absurdity, like people yelling. There is so much yelling. The character who might be the rebel leader gives his heroic last stand, and the bad guy walks up to him for the execution. Rebel leader gives a knowing smile. Cut away to the sewers where his friend is escaping. Gunshot. She looks up. You can see exactly what I’m describing. But how did she know that one gunshot of many was the important one? It’s cinematically correct, but there is no “cinematically correct,” and the movie manipulates its film language to fit itself into a broader pattern.
Earlier, Sakamoto’s police partner Saigo is shadily introduced to a villainous character, and this begins his turn toward being the antagonist. Then the scene cuts. Every scene in this movie ends about halfway through, but this is especially egregious because it strangles a sapling development. We go on, following Saigo’s perspective, which should mean we see him internally debating the choice to betray his friend. However, that “following” is for one scene with his wife, and we don’t see the debate. The movie makes no time for luxuriating, for example in the evil of the villain’s machinations, the sleaziness he exudes by leaning on Saigo. The scene cuts away because we have sufficient expository information — he met the guy — and, well, that’s what other movies do. They cut at that part and we’re meant to say, “Uh-oh,” and perhaps we do.
Of course, it turns out that Saigo wasn’t entirely turned, as he assists Sakamoto’s escape from police HQ after a conspiratorial trap has sprung. For this turn to work as a surprise, details would’ve necessarily been withheld. And so, more than “manipulation,” the word is “contrivance.” Rewind to the scene with his wife and there’s nothing there. The film is built this way, plastering together hints of nothingness soon revealed, and this is what we might call “mystery-box storytelling.” In an earlier scene, Sakamto’s investigation leads him to a Korean district where he’s ambushed and taken into a building. Girl character Hye-rin points a gun at him and then slides it across the table for him to point at her. Neither can shoot each other. Then he leaves, and I am perplexed. That was nothing! What was the point? Mystery. And more so, now he knows where to go after his big escape later. This is how a more than two-hour running time happens — long by any standard but especially an action-thriller’s — by scenes which serve less than one function, and though they’re skipped through like fast-forward, will need to be multiplied to make up what other movies do economically.
Impressively, this characteristic contrivance influences the world-building as well; not just the science-fiction but character backstory. If we need a scene of conflict between Sakamoto and his police superior, let him remind Sakamoto his father was a traitor. But if that’s true, why was Sakamoto allowed to become a police officer in an alternate history — so, presumably oppressive and racist — system? And why bring it up now, with yelling? Has this not been a conversation all along? Then there’s the action, which is contrived toward specific set pieces, like blowing up a car or shooting guys in more and further last stands (not sure why people in this movie don’t fall over when shot, other than it makes a last stand more dramatic), and this actually requires bending the laws of physics. To position a character for the big moment, they may need to outrun a hail of bullets, and indeed ricochets follow people like shadows as they scramble into their next explosion. For targets within spitting distance, automatic fire is blasting apart the walls and the ground, all set to the comforting rhythm of that single stock sound effect for “pistol” used on every caliber of handgun. It was fine in Joint Security Area where they only shot, like, 20 rounds, not here where it’s 20,000.
It doesn’t seem that the filmmakers understand how bullets work any more than story, or slow-motion — why slow down foot chases? — or human nature or even alternate history. First of all, in a movie where characters are introduced with slow-motion face reveals set to uplifting or dark music to indicate how we should probably feel about them, our first Mexican standoff comes between Sakamoto and Hye-rin — boy meets girl — and there’s a pang of recognition in their eyes. Later, in that scene when they decide they can’t shoot each other, Sakamoto asks Hye-rin if he knows her. He doesn’t actually know her? Then what the hell was that pang for? And the slow-motion? Granted, there’s some time travel fuckery in play, so people might have residual memories or whatever the hell, and my introduction of the time travel element right here is about as abrupt as the film’s. Regardless, in this scene, the two characters have their thesis moment, and the philosophical disagreement breaks down like this:
Sakamato: “You Korean rebels are hurting other Koreans.”
Hye-rin: “You’re just the Japanese’s dog.”
Let me put that another way:
Sakamato: “You are doing wrong.”
Hye-rin: “No, you are doing wrong.”
Sakamoto: “You are a rebel.”
Hye-rin: “You are the agent.”
2009 would be cliché if it modeled Japanese-occupied Seoul with brutalist architecture like the totalitarian city of its contemporary Equilibrium. Instead, Seoul looks like Seoul, but with kanji on the buildings. There is no character, not even cliché character, in the production design, which is just one of many tools a filmmaker has to communicate an idea, like say, “This is Japanese-occupied Seoul.” When Sakamoto is betrayed by the police, suddenly all his superiors start barking racism at him, and I’m calling bullshit. There were no microaggressions before — seemingly nobody even knew he was Korean, until it was convenient to reference his traitorous father. On the streets, there is no depiction of oppression: no military checkpoints, patrols, sad Korean people. The only Koreans are the underground terrorists. Dear movie, what does Japanese occupation mean to you? And not even what but who? As the movie points out, this isn’t even the Empire of Japan, it’s a right-wing extremist group inside the Empire of Japan, and for all the violence that would suggest, there’s no allusion to life under tyranny whatsoever. Even Sakamoto’s tension with the world around him comes from his father rather than being a racial minority. When two characters meet to aim guns at each other and discuss the state of political affairs, it’s understandable they have nothing to talk about.
Granted, at this point, we don’t know the whole story, as the movie’s still withholding. That’s its thing; it’s withholding even when it provides answers. Sakamoto “investigating” means he visits a location that triggers a flashback and provides him a clue. For God’s sake, why can’t he just go somewhere and learn something from the actual place? Unfortunately, he’s far too passive for that. This is the guy who’s pushed into an alliance with the Korean freedom fighters (née terrorists) by the police betrayal — he never stops to consider a choice and then makes it. I’ve seen and been frustrated by passive characters before, but Sakamoto compounds the issue by being silent. The script stops before the movie is over, making its final 20 minutes a shouting match of visual language rendered in horrendous CG. When Sakamoto and Hye-rin need to activate a time travel device, they’re attacked by the JBI and start running around shooting guns. The time travel device unfolds on its own, but there’s not even that crappy ADR like “We have to activate the device!” They say nothing. We move from scene to scene without being situated in the world or character. How does Sakamoto feel about altering history when he does so? Or traveling in time? Well, these things are impossible, so don’t worry about it.
Highlander: Lost Memories
Before Saigo heads off to the climactic showdown, we have the “goodbye, wife” scene, but they don’t speak to each other. The movie seems to be asking, notepad in hand, “What do you think they would say?” And then the climactic showdown has Sakamoto and Saigo circling each other in a bamboo forest while their dialogue plays in voiceover. Why are we so afraid to exist in the present — where things are not slow-motion? Because the first half of the movie is a standard police procedural, every creative decision is two doors already built: “good” and “bad,” and they open “bad” every time. Substandard, more like. There’s a massive exposition dump after the halfway point where a brand-new character reveals to a silent Sakamoto that time travel is real, these Japanese extremists altered history and redirected the bomb, and now everything’s fucked. Sakamoto’s reaction? Take a wild guess. It is such a weird movie, but this is when it kicks into bonkers overdrive. Just like Sakamoto’s charmed life of marginalization (I mean, maybe there was racism but he simply never reacted), there have been no clues suggesting a science-fictional element, like the anachronistic music at the beginning of BioShock Infinite or the Strangers in Dark City. And if we’re speaking of clues, once more, Sakamoto didn’t arrive at this exposition, he didn’t earn it.
It’s this lack of storytelling discipline by which the filmmakers go about litigating an extremely sensitive issue, as the story arcs toward a nauseating calculation when Sakamoto must go back in time and reset history: Korean freedom at the price of the bombing of Hiroshima and Nagasaki. In real life, Korean freedom did come at that price, and whether or not that debate continues (certainly), it happened. If you’re gonna take the hard stance that the price was fair by undoing it via time travel and then having the characters fight to redo it, you’d better have a fucking reason. Instead, at the end of our exposition dump, Saigo’s superior makes a racist remark and we’re off to the redoing! Distract the viewer with Japanese racism against Koreans, flatten a complicated and needless moral question. How this was a Korean-Japanese co-production with many actual Japanese actors? Mystery.
For my part, I don’t begrudge any Korean for harboring anger against Japan, even today, when America’s fully moved on and accepted both countries as economic allies. What I do begrudge — and when a negative review of a plainly bad movie becomes something else — is filmmakers stoking nationalism. I may love nations, but I fucking hate nationalism. And this film was made in 2002. South Korean troops would be deployed in America’s War on Terror, and a movie like 2009: Lost Memories narrativizes and manufactures the required indignation. Even if there wasn’t a war going on, which is never, it’s the female politician being pummeled in Olympus Has Fallen. At that point, you’re no longer speaking to me in a sympathetic or even recognizable language. I begin to think about hypocrisy, about the reality of American foreign relations, and even South Korea’s, which is hardly spotless to traffic in such victimization — and do so with neck-veined, machine-gunning screams. Film is a medium, not a piñata.
As an addendum, crimes against humanity — like those perpetrated by Imperial Japan against Korea — ought to be the basis for something, but never for nationalism, because they aren’t about nations, they’re about people. I haven’t done sufficient research on these topics, so I apologize in advance, but Korean comfort women is about sexual violence and gender, not Korea versus Japan, when 20 years later, Korean soldiers did the same thing to Vietnamese women. It’s not for me to say, or to decide who can claim victimhood, but unless the filmmakers of 2009 (adapting a book whose Korean author sued to have his name removed from the credits) have these feelings for real, why do this? Maybe the movie didn’t upset Japanese people or simplify the world for Koreans, but it’s my belief that stories like this are dangerous, and certainly they speak to an aspect of human nature I wish didn’t exist.