A high-concept romantic thriller about a cop from 2015 and a teacher from 1983 who connect through dreams and race to save the lives of the women they love, “Time Renegades” has the emotional heft to keep viewers engaged even when its elaborately wired plot suffers the odd short circuit. This pacy and highly imaginative item directed by Korean hitmaker Kwak Jae-yong (“My Sassy Girl,” “Windstruck”) bounced out brightly on April 13 with 200,000 admissions in its first two days of domestic trading. Minus the heavy melodrama of typical Korean love stories aimed squarely at the local market, “Renegades” stands a good chance of attracting auds in a concurrent North American release.
Back on home turf after helming Chinese romcom hit “Meet Miss Anxiety,” Kwak’s first foray into thriller territory sets off at full-speed with exciting parallel action taking place on Dec. 31, 2014, and the same date in 1982. During New Year’s Eve celebrations at Bosingak Belfry in Seoul, 2014 rookie detective Geon-woo (Lee Jun-uk) and 1982 high school music teacher Ji-hwan (Jo Jung-suk) suffer life-threatening injuries. When all hope on respective ER surgery tables seems lost, a momentary power blackout brings both men back from the brink.
That sequence is the first of many exhibitions of razor-sharp editing and top-shelf visual effects seamlessly uniting past and present. As a side-effect of these two near-death experiences separated by 32 years, both men are able to see directly into each others lives via vivid dreams.
Before letting loose with thriller elements, the screenplay carefully establishes a strong emotional foundation: Ji-hwan has just proposed to long-time girlfriend Yoon-jung (Lim Soo-jung), a kind-hearted, deep-thinking science teacher employed at the same high school. Excellent chemistry between the well-paired performers gives the feeling of a match made in heaven.
Meanwhile in 2015, Geon-woo has become attracted to So-eun (also Lim Soo-jung), a spunky and spirited type who’s a dead-ringer for Yoon-jung and also a high school teacher. Early puzzle-box pieces fall neatly into place when a combination of dream exchanges and Geon-woo’s police work reveals Yoon-jung was murdered on a fast-approaching date in 1983.
With basics thus well-covered, the film flicks the high-tempo switch and introduces a gallery of intriguing supporting characters, just about all of whom could potentially be guilty of heinous crimes in the past or about to commit them in the near-future. In 2014, there’s Geon-woo’s sidekick Tae-su (Lee Ki-woo) and their newly-appointed commander, Lt. Kang (Jung Jin-young), a stony-faced customer whose wife was murdered several years ago. Ji-hwan’s world is rife with suspects including unruly student Seung-beoum (Lee Min-ho), petty thief Hyung-chul (Jung Woong-in) and a shifty, unnamed biology teacher (Jeon Shin-hwan) whose lascivious eye is firmly trained on Yoon-jung.
Kwak keeps suspense and excitement levels high as the dream-linked duo’s efforts to prevent tragedy in 1983 inadvertently places 2014 lookalike So-eun in grave danger. While there are a few minor “huh?” moments when consequences of altering the past begin to mount up in the present, screenwriters Jo and Kee make sure the film’s internal logic remains intact when it really matters.
Aesthetically speaking, slick lensing by Lee Sung-jae lends a soft and warm tone to the 1983 romance segments, and a gritty, lived-in look to the more recent detective thriller sections. Production designer Lee Yo-han (“Sunny”) and costumer Jang ju-hee clearly had a ball fitting out the 1983 world with a fabulous selection of retro furniture and fashions. Performances are tops right down to bit parts. The traditional orchestral score by Kim Jin-sung lays the strings on a little too thick at times; otherwise it’s just fine. All other technical work is on the money.