A luxuriantly shot but underscripted meller, “Traces of Love” gets by on smooth technique and local star power but consistently promises more than it delivers. Story about a guy who loses his fiancee in an accident and many years later meets a young woman who finally exorcises his grief contains elements that should help the movie’s progress in South Korea, but beyond Asia pic won’t leave many B.O. traces. It was a decidedly local-looking opener for this year’s Pusan fest.
Main hook for Korean auds is basing the opening tragedy on a real-life disaster in Seoul in 1995, when a department store simply folded in on itself, causing multiple deaths and national trauma-cum-shame. Opening 20 minutes leading to this event are skillfully paced, as the main protags, student lawyer Choi Hyeon-woo (Yu Ji-tae) and his fiancee, TV director Seo Min-ju (Kim Ji-su), are intro’d. They’re madly in love, he’s liked by her old-fashioned parents and she is both smart and sunny.
As they arrange one day to meet at a department store, pic leisurely cross-cuts between him arriving late and her idly shopping there. Trading on the audience’s knowledge of what’s in store, the tension is allowed to build by itself, without any music or jazzed-up editing. When the inevitable happens, in front of Choi, who’s across the street, the sequence gains extra force from its rapidity and clean, unfussy visual effects.
Tone briefly turns darker during the immediate aftermath, as one unidentified young woman is finally rescued from the rubble but turns out not to be Seo. Story then fast forwards about 10 years to the present, with Choi now a public prosecutor and no longer the happy-go-lucky student of earlier.
While Choi has to cope with high-level corruption that forces him off a case he’s about to close, film starts to intro the third protag, a young woman called Yun Se-jin (Eom Ji-weon, from Hong Sang-soo’s “A Tale of Cinema”), who suffers from unexplained panic attacks.
Viewers are initially left in the dark as to how she fits into the story, but as Choi is given time off work and vacations on an island that he and Seo were to have honeymooned on, film starts to freely cut back and forth between past and present, hinting that Yun has always been in the background of their lives.
After Choi and Yun finally bump into each other by accident, and spend an increasing amount of time together on the island, film looks like turning into one of the several time-shifting/dual-universe love stories that were popular in South Korean cinema around the late 1990s/early 2000s (“Il Mare,” “Ditto,” “The Classic”). That, in fact, is its biggest problem, as the solution to the mini-mystery is quite conventional and doesn’t explore any of the promised avenues of fate and happenstance. Tie-up with Choi’s professional career is also weak.
From rather stiff, standard beefcake beginnings, Yu is turning into a much more nuanced screen presence, and here makes Choi a likable, if emotionally distant, character. Kim brings her usual shining beauty to the idealized role of Seo and contrasts well with the more introverted, plainer Eom. But neither the Choi/Seo love story nor the emotional dilemma that Choi and Yun find themselves in ever hook the viewer enough to sustain the movie through the dawdling script.
Pic is a further disappointment coming from helmer Kim Dae-seung, who debuted with the offbeat meller “Bungee Jumping of Their Own” (2000) and followed that with the flavorsome costume whodunit, “Blood Rain” (2005). Most offscreen kudos go to d.p. Lee Mo-gae, whose yellow-and-gold widescreen lensing of the South Korean landscape in the fall beautifully evokes the pic’s Korean title (literally, “Towards Autumn”).