Billed as “the biggest action flick in the history of Korean cinema,” Lee Shi-myeong’s debut feature, “2009 — Lost Memories,” is more often a noirish action drama, a melancholy meditation on history and nationalism, than the high-tech thriller promised by its hype and artwork. A wannabe Japanese-Korean buddy movie wrapped around a hokey, what-if/sci-fi drama, the movie is far too leisurely for the international market, but provides steady enough entertainment over its two-plus hours for Asiaphiles, signaling some fest and ancillary action.
Amid expectation it could be South Korean cinema’s second “Shiri,” the film performed well but not whammo when it finally opened locally in February, racking up 2.26 million admissions (roughly $13 million).
A rapid montage establishes a fictional 20th-century history in which Japan won WWII, joined the U.N. Security Council and still includes Korea in its empire. Pic immediately swings into an action setpiece, set in Seoul, 2009, where anti-Japanese terrorist group Hureisenjin takes over an exhibition hall in which Japanese bigwig Kenji Inoue (Ahn Gae-beom) is displaying artifacts from his collection.
The Japanese Bureau of Investigation sends in two anti-terrorist specialists, Masayuki Sakamoto (Chang Dong-gun, from “Nowhere to Hide” and “Friend”) and Shojiro Saigo (Toru Nakamura, from “Tokyo Raiders” and “Gen-X Cops”). After a taut, well-lensed sequence full of laser beams and commandos dropping from on high, the terrorists are all iced.
However, the JBI is baffled by the Hureisenjin’s motives; when the group tries again, as the exhibition is being transported back to Japan, it manages to steal the Lunar Soul, an ancient artifact used in religious ceremonies. Meanwhile, Sakamoto, who’s actually an ethnic Korean and has been doing some private investigations into Inoue, finds himself set up for the murder of Takahashi (Shin Gu), an old cop who was his de facto father.
Sakamoto manages to avoid arrest by the JBI thanks to Saigo, though the latter man warns him that next time they meet, it will be as enemies. Both find themselves pitted against each other as the Hureisenjin seeks to open a time portal with the Lunar Soul and go back 100 years to “rectify” history.
Film is dramatically unsteady during the first hour as it tries to deliver action at the same time it builds a meaningful relationship between the two protags — Saigo, the pure Japanese, and Sakamoto, a Korean raised as a Japanese whose ethnic roots are soon to burst forth. When the latter finally throws in his lot with the terrorists, the drama becomes more focused; but there’s a shallowness to the central relationship –compounded by Chang and Nakamura’s lack of chemistry — which undermines the whole film.
It’s among the supporting roles that the personal drama is really played out: Saigo’s touching relationship with his wife, Yuriko, and Sakamoto’s with venerable cop Takahashi and gutsy terrorist babe Hae-rin (Seo Jin-ho). However, there’s so much plot to get through in the second half that even these relationships don’t get the time they deserve.
The movie finally finds its feet stylistically during the hourlong third act where the action sequences, played out in blurred slo-mo with rhapsodic, Morricone-ish music, take on a heroic-melancholic quality. This fits the nationalistic theme of the story, even if it doesn’t disguise all the loose ends in the time-travel script.
The reported $5 million budget (huge by South Korean standards) is all up on the screen, along with the OK special effects. Overall, the picture is very dark: almost entirely set at night, or in interiors which range from the black-and-white checkerboard set of the JBI’s HQ to the ochry underground hideaways of the Hureisenjin.