Reviewed By Jay Seaver
Posted 08/01/07 12:37:13

"Massive plastic surgery - the latest weapon in the psycho ex's arsenal."
5 stars (Awesome)

SCREENED AT THE 2007 FANTASIA FESTIVAL: The opening moments of "Time" are some of the more stomach-churning shots I've seen in a movie in a while, but it's not a gore movie. They're shots of cosmetic surgery, and my reaction was just a knee-jerk response to stock medical footage, what filmmaker Kim Ki-duk does afterward is perhaps even creepier.

First, he introduces us to Ji-woo (Ha Jung-woo) and Seh-hee (Park Ji-yeon), who have been together for two years. Their relationship is starting to fray; Ji-woo occasionally turns his head to look at other girls and Seh-hee reacts with near-hysterical jealousy. They seem to make up after one outburst in a coffee shop, but soon afterward Seh-hee visits a plastic surgeon and suddenly disappears from Ji-woo's life. He's miserable, even as his friends try to cheer him up and introduce him to other girls. After six months, though, he hits it off with the new waitress at the coffee shop he and Seh-hee used to go to. He and See-hee (Seong Hyeon-a) have some weirdness going on, though - he accidentally uses Seh-hee's name, and she's got no pictures of herself as a child.

The twist here is obvious, and it's to Kim's credit that he doesn't treat it as something to be revealed: even if he doesn't initially spell it out, we catch on to Seh-hee and See-hee being one and the same very quick. For most of the movie, Kim avoids obvious melodrama, using low-key scenes of Ji-woo and See-hee dating to give us a chance to ponder the idea of what it might be worth to repeat the early,k good years of a relationship, or to have a fresh start. But as much as we see See-hee and Ji-woo enjoying themselves, we're also aware of how they're visiting the same sculpture park Ji-woo and Seh-hee did, even taking photos that are eerily similar to the first times they visited the place.

It's a funny thing - those scenes aren't nearly as obviously jolting as the movie's last act, or where a character loudly expresses outrage at the idea of getting rid of the face that their parents and God gave them, but it's here that Kim makes his real argument against radical cosmetic surgery. Despite the film's story about change and deceiving others, the true evil Kim sees is stasis. Sure, most people have plastic surgery to try to look younger while Seh-hee is still pretty, but Seh-hee is trying to return to stay at a comfortable point in her life and relationship.

Trying to stay in one place like that isn't good for anyone, and the cast does a fine job of showing how their characters are pulled between the past and present. Or, in Park Ji-yeon's case, present and future: We initially see her character as shrewish and unreasonable.. and our first impression is correct, if incomplete. After her initial outbursts Park shows us how afraid her character is of losing Ji-woo, so that while her decision to become See-hee is crazy, it's within the boundaries of her particular issues. In fact, it's not immediately obvious Seong Hyeon-a is playing the same character, given how normal she initially seems and the decoys Kim tosses at us. Her moments of doubt and self-destructiveness play close to Park's, and we easily buy her opting to test Ji-woo even though roughly two seconds of thought will reveal it as a bad idea. Seong shows us someone trying to force herself to be happy; and just like Park, her take on the character is both crazy and vulnerable enough to get some measure of sympathy she finds herself in a nightmare of her own making. Ha Jung-woo, meanwhile, makes Ji-woo a pleasant enough guy, although not without his faults. There's something especially earnest about him as we see the six months between Seh-hee's disappearance and See-hee's introduction; he never seems sure whether to move forward or look back.

Though Kim Ki-duk does some clever work in how he shows us change but gives us stasis, he can be pretty heavy-handed at times, and bizarre at others. He and his cast sell us on the high concept, with little details like how See-hee smiles at the way her hand still seems to match Ji-woo's perfectly, but some of the details may be going a little too far. The last half hour has enough paranoia for a half-dozen Body Snatcher films, and is a kick to watch for that, but I don't know if I completely bought into how Ji-woo was acting during it. While the story is still being driven by Seh-hee's insecurity, and we can understand Ji-woo being angry, the spite required seems to come out of nowhere. Kim has occasionally gotten a reputation of being misogynistic, and Time won't do a whole lot to change that: Seh-hong is one of the more frightening girlfriend from hell creations in recent years, and though neither Ji-woo nor the other male characters are perfect - his friends seem like shallow jerks; the surgeon (Kim Sung-min) is creepy - she's got enough crazy for ten men.

The paranoia of the last act is delicious enough to forgive a couple of bumps in the road, though. It's a nasty little movie, an unromantic story of a love that's strong and gets terribly twisted, but engrossing for all that.

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