by Mel Valentin
Imagine a past where Japan, with the aid of the United States, won World War II, proudly leading an empire in Far East Asia. Imagine a past without Hiroshima or Nagasaki. Imagine a near future where the Japanese Empire rules an undivided Korea as a protectorate. In their own country, ethnic Koreans live as single-class citizens, actively discriminated against by the Japanese living in Korea. Some Koreans have fully assimilated and adopted Japanese names and customs. Others have become fierce, uncompromising nationalists, willing to sacrifice their lives for an abstract ideal, a free, unified Korea.South Korea’s 2009: Lost Memories, a science fiction/action film directed by Si-myung Lee with impressive, if excessive, John Woo-like energy, takes as its premise exactly that bold, thought-provoking scenario, an alternate near-future where Korea remains a Japanese colony and Japan emerged from World War II relatively unscathed. This alternate future is, of course, based on an alternate timeline, tied to a singular event with decades-long ramifications, the attempted assassination of a Japanese official in 1909 by a Korean nationalist. That failed assassination leads, most importantly, to an alliance between Japan and the United States before the onset of World War II.
"Fantastic action scenes undermined by a weakly developed premise."
Flash forward to 2009: Masayuki Sakamoto (Dong-Kun Jang), an ethnic Korean who’s adopted a Japanese name, works as a police officer for the Japanese Bureau of Intelligence. Along with his ethnic Japanese partner, Shojiro Saigo (Toru Nakamura), Sakamoto is considered among the best and the brightest detectives within the JBI. His loyalties are clear, to the social and ethnic hierarchy that offers him status and power. Even then, his ethnicity limits his advancement within the department. Saigo’s actions and behavior toward his partner are colored by unconscious, casual racism (he considers Sakamoto “Japanese,” while denigrating ethnic Koreans who haven’t properly or fully assimilated into Japanese culture).
Sakamoto’s complacency is immediately put to the test: a group of Korean nationalists, the Furei-Senjin, stage a daring assault on a museum. Arriving by hang gliders, the Furei-Senjin take the museum without incident. The nationalists, however, aren’t interested in ransoming the hostages or in obtaining media attention for their cause. Instead, the Furei-Senjin are interested in obtaining an ancient Korean artifact, the “Lunar Soul.” The artifact, owned by the powerful, mysterious Inoue Foundation may be just a symbol of nascent Korean nationalism or it may have more than symbolic meaning or purpose. Sakamoto and Saigo, joined by a SWAT team defeat the nationalists before they can escape with the artifact.
The artifact, however, piques Sakamoto’s interest. His attempts to uncover the purpose of the artifact and the connection between the Inoue Foundation and the Furei-Senjin are frustrated at every turn by his superiors and by a high-ranking executive from the Inoue Foundation. Undaunted, Sakamoto contradicts orders and attempts to directly question high-ranking members of the Inoue Foundation. Taken off the case by his nervous superiors, Sakamoto, along with Saigo, uncovers the Furei-Senjin’s next plan of attack, an attempt to redirect a museum shipment that includes the ancient artifact. As he digs deeper into the case, Sakamoto begins to question his allegiance to the JBI and his place in Japanese society. In short order, Sakamoto is falsely charged with a capital crime. Forced to flee, he turns to the Furei-Senjin, who, not surprisingly treat him with distrust and skepticism. As Sakamoto’s position becomes increasingly untenable (and he becomes a wanted fugitive), Saigo is drawn into the plot against him, primarily for “noble” reasons, to protect the social order, his place in the social order, and his family.
It’s to Si-myung Lee and his co-screenwriter’s Sang-hak Lee credit that Saigo is never less than sympathetic, even as his conflicting feelings toward his partner are resolved in favor of the status quo. It’s here, in the devolving, conflicted friendship between Sakamoto and Saigo that 2009: Lost Memories rises above the routine actioner level. It’s also here that John Woo’s influence on a dramatic level is evident: Si-myung Lee and Sang-hak Lee revel in creating a dynamic, grounded relationship between the two men, only to gradually erode their friendship as circumstances and loyalties dictate.
John Woo’s influence is also evident in the elaborately choreographed action scenes. Si-myung Lee has closely studied Woo’s Hong Kong films, and borrowed some of Woo’s techniques and motifs, from the slow-motion introduction of the characters, to the hyperkinetic camerawork and editing, and almost as importantly, the emphasis on fetishized gunplay. With the exception of the final set piece, set aboard a tanker, Si-myung Lee’s action scenes are on par with John Woo’s better output or anything presently being generated in Hollywood. It’s in the final set piece, however, that Si-myung Lee’s imagination seems to have deserted him (either that or budget limitations dictated the lackluster result).
2009: Lost Memories, of course contains a major plot turn involving a science fiction element. While most viewers will be able to guess the purpose of the ancient artifact, Si-myung Lee waits until three-quarters into the film before introducing a nearly superfluous character whose sole purpose is to offer key exposition about the artifact and the Furei-Senjin’s mission. Even then, Si-myung Lee makes only a superficial attempt at an explanation. He simply expects the audience to accept the explanation and move on to the next-to-last set piece aboard the tanker. The demands of the plot (and audience expectations) mean that Sakamoto and Saigo will engage in one, last confrontation.Sadly, Si-myung Lee stumbles just as "2009: Lost Memories" reaches the ending, substituting sepia-toned shots and fade to blacks in place of well-choreographed action. And while "2009: Lost Memories" has its shares of plot holes (e.g., the Inoue Foundation’s illogical decision to display the ancient artifact in a traveling exhibition, the lead character’s visions, and the inner workings of a major plot device), Lee settles for a patently absurd, explanation-free, if uplifting, reunion between Sakamoto and a secondary character. Ultimately, the flaws and shortcomings in "2009: Lost Memories" are difficult to overlook, but bravura set pieces and the central relationship between friends turned enemies (aided by Dong-Kun Jang and Toru Nakamura’s credible performances and onscreen chemistry) make it well worth recommending (and watching).
link directly to this review at http://www.efilmcritic.com/review.php?movie=12476&reviewer=402
originally posted: 06/16/05 08:28:13