Judge Adam Arseneau only wishes he could lose the memory of this Korean sci-fi action flick.
What if everything you knew was a lie…?
Unlike Japanese, Hong Kong, and Chinese cinema, which all have their own individual senses of cinematic identity, South Korean cinema is oddly chameleonic, especially with its more mainstream films, which can recreate the Hollywood blockbuster with such freakish accuracy that they are almost embarrassing to watch. Seeing fluffy action popcorn films fed back at us through a Korean cultural filter allows for the startling realization of how fundamentally ridiculous and dumb the summer blockbuster truly is. And that we should be very, very ashamed of ourselves for unleashing the genre upon the world.
Case in point: 2009: Lost Memories, a big-budgeted action affair that has had all the philosophy, intrigue, and intelligence squeezed out of it like a lemon, but sure manages to make a lot of stuff blow up and crash a disproportionate amount of vehicles. Considering the intriguing and complicated time-traveling premise, they must have had to work pretty darn hard to dumb it down to this level; ironic, really. But is it a good time for anyone who does not desire to think during a film? Read on…
Facts of the Case
After the attempted assassination of retired Japanese Resident General Ito Hirobumi in China by a Korean nationalist, Japan descended upon the people of Korea like a cloud of noxious gas. After brutally annexing the country, all grassroots opposition to the Japanese colonial masters was systematically crushed, and the two countries became an economic powerhouse rivaled only by the United States. Naturally, Japan joins the Allies during World War II, successfully defeating Hitler's armies by dropping the nuclear bomb on Berlin, thereby securing the nation of Japan's social, economic and political might throughout the world.
In 2009, Seoul is Japan's third largest city, and its Korean citizens are looked down upon as second-class. However, racial tension still separates the classes, and the stirrings of discontent have permeated society. In particular, a radical Korean terrorist group called the Hureisenjin has been terrorizing the city over the last few years, demanding Korean liberation. When the terrorists break into a museum during the opening night of an exhibition of ancient artifacts, the authorities spring into action and surround the building.
Two elite detectives in the JBI (Japanese Bureau of Investigations), Sakamoto and Saigo, lead the charge into the building, and soon have brought the terrorists down to their knees in a halo of gunfire and explosions. After closer examination, it seems the terrorists were trying to smuggle a crescent-shaped rock out of the building, for reasons unknown. Sakamoto in particular seems obsessed with uncovering the motives of the Hureisenjin, and his obsession is more than a little personal. As it turns out, his father was a well-respected Korean police officer with a distinguished career…until he suddenly abandoned his duties and joined up with the same terrorist outfit he was investigating—the Hureisenjin!
Sakamoto's superiors grow wary of his preoccupation with this case, suspecting that his personal feelings and racial background will be a conflict of interests. His partner Saigo, a staunch Japanese traditionalist, despite having nothing but love and respect toward his partner, begins to worry about Sakamoto's Korean heritage and his loyalties, despite Sakamoto's insistence that his only desire is to see the terrorist organization that corrupted his father brought to its knees. But when Sakamoto finds a connection between the terrorist organization and the Inoue Foundation, an incredibly powerful pseudo-zaibatsu, his superior officers immediately throw Sakamoto off the case.
Unhindered, Sakamoto continues to investigate the connection between the Inoue Foundation and the terrorist group, determined to uncover the truth. A superior officer friend comes over to visit Sakamoto and gently urge him to back off the case. But when an armed assailant breaks into his apartment and kills his friend, things take infinitely more complicated. The police arrest Sakamoto, and he is charged with murdering his comrade. Sakamoto, suspecting a conspiracy unfolding around him, escapes from the police station with the reluctant help of his partner, who makes it clear that the next time they meet, they will be on opposite sides of the law. Having nowhere else to turn, Sakamoto tracks down the Hureisenjin, who grudgingly take him into their ranks.
Sakamoto begins to learn more about the group, their motives, and eventually, the reason his father decided to join them. As it turns out, the ancient artifact the Korean terrorists were trying to steal is the Lunar Soul, a mythical device said to possess time traveling powers. The purpose of the Hureisenjin is to travel back in time and reverse the course of history for the Korean people. Apparently, Ito Hirobumi was meant to die at the hands of the Korean assassin in 1909, an event which would have lead to the full annexation of Korea in 1910, the growing dissent and rebellion of the Korean nation, Japan allying itself with Germany during WWII, the nuclear bombing of Hiroshima and Nagasaki, and the defeat of Japan, indirectly granting Korea its independence.
Once the Hureisenjin had learned that the timeline had been altered, they made it their goal to travel back and ensure that the assassination takes place as planned, in order to liberate Korea and correct the timeline. Unfortunately, the Japanese are also aware of this fact, and had deliberately suppressed knowledge of the Lunar Soul in order to preserve the current timeline—a timeline in which Japan ruled Korea, was the second most powerful nation in the world, and where it emerged victorious from WWII without suffering the cultural trauma of defeat or the hideous tortures of nuclear radiation. The Inoue Foundation was established to protect this secret above all costs, and would do anything in order to prevent history from reverting to its proper course—including the systematic elimination of everyone who learns the truth.
Sakamoto and the Hureisenjin are determined to right history, but this quest will send him into a direct collision course with his partner, Seiko. Seiko's superiors have informed him of the secret as well, and as a proud Japanese man, he is determined to preserve the glory and dominance of his country—even if it means killing his best friend and partner!
Sounds cool, doesn't it? All complicated and compelling-like?
Exactly what I thought to myself when I first heard of 2009, a film that was on track to be one of the most expensive South Korean films ever produced. The film has everything a guy (and cool girls) could want: intense gunfights, sci-fi time traveling, alternate realities, historical drama, explosions, slow-motion jumping…but alas, therein lies the problem. So eager is 2009 to explode into an action-fest kill-zone and recreate scene for scene a Jerry Bruckheimer / Michael Bay multimillion-dollar extravaganza, that it leaps out the front door and leaves a few things behind. Small, insignificant things, like a good script and the necessity to have intelligent thought to appreciate it—two things that 2009 desperately, desperately needed.
2009: Lost Memories is not really a terrible film by any stretch of the imagination, but its problem is the total lack of imagination-stretching required to view it. It may not be a bad movie, but it is an incredibly dumb movie, devoid of any originality or freshness, contributing nothing original back to the genres it so selfishly borrows from. That the film starts off with a fantastic action sequence rivaling anything Hollywood can come up with—all within the first ten minutes of the film—simply makes the slow downhill spiral of its potential all the more bitter to the palate. By the time the science-fiction elements are introduced near the end, our disbelief has spread so thin that the enjoyment bubble simply bursts. To put it another way, the film just gets corny; not even the compelling and stylish ending sequence can rescue 2009 from the lower basement of mediocrity and action-film clichés. It passes the point of no return about an hour in, right about the time your brain cells clock out, climb out your ear, and go read a book, desperate for something intelligent to do.
Personally, I did not find the acting to be any more impressive than the script. The characters pull off their roles with typical action-hero swagger (e.g., shooting things instead of emoting), but I cannot name a single performance in the film that I felt was worthy of any accolade. You could drive a car through the plot holes in this film, and I wouldn't trust a single one of these actors to be the chauffeur. Even more conflicting are the social and racial politics in the film; so muddied by the constant spray of bullets that any social or political meaning they once had evaporates. Rather, the plot simply breaks down to good guys vs. bad guys, ultimately portraying the Koreans in a patriotic, righteous fashion, while the Japanese are simply the evil, ruthless oppressors. Hardly surprising then, that the film was financially successful in Korea while performing in rather mediocre fashion in Japan. Any more salient point this film wished to make about Korean and Japanese nationalism simply gets lost amid the never-ending stream of black body-armored SWAT officers with guns that never need reloading. And amusingly, when you think about it, no matter which future ultimately triumphs in 2009, the North Koreans get screwed either way—either by vicious Japanese overlords in the alternate timeline, or by self-appointing a vicious overlord in the current one. If this was meant to suggest something poignant, I have no idea what it is.
The transfer is a bit quirkier than I expected it to be, considering the money clearly thrown into making the film. Noticeable signs of scratching, spots, and dirt are visible throughout the film, though the quality of the film seems erratic—some sequences are crystal clear with immaculate black levels and sharpness, while others have nasty white spotting, an unpleasant softness, and terribly murky black levels. Heavy grain is noticeable, especially during nighttime sequences (of which there are many.) For an action film, the transfer is sub-par.
The sound, on the other hand, kicks your ass. Decent clarity, great bass response, and an incredible use of dynamic mixing throughout all the channels make this audio presentation a winner. Both a Korean and an English Dolby Surround 5.1 track are included, and save for a slight decrease in dialogue volume on the English dub, the two tracks sound virtually identical. The mixing, as stated before, is fantastic. Bullets and broken glass fly diagonally across the channels with perfectly timed execution, and characters have a cool habit of introducing themselves off-screen from the rear corner channels. Personally, I would have been happy ditching the English dub and putting the extra space into ramping up the visual transfer, but hey, that's me. For all those of you who like that sort of thing, the English dub is certainly passable, but it takes some liberties and deviates away from the more literally translated subtitles.
And speaking of the subtitles, I noticed two sequences during which the subtitles miscued—that is, they came up and vanished before a scene had even taken place. That kind of thing really is sloppy. Finally, the DVD stinks up the supplementary material department, providing basically nothing of note—a few trailers, and a ten-minute production diary that takes us behind the scenes, blah blah blah. Nowadays, these barely even qualify as "extras."
The Rebuttal Witnesses
FROM: Jerry Bruckheimer and Michael Bay
My aides recently handed me your screenplay, and we would like to take this opportunity to comment on it. Since we here in Hollywood are so keen these days to remake every Asian film we can get our hands on, we figure making changes before the film gets made will save us all a lot of trouble.
Make no mistake, we were suitably impressed by your work, and feel it holds great potential—but we have some suggestions as to improve things. If we may:
Be sure to include a slow-motion dive underwater to escape a rushing hallway of fire. Worry about working this into the script later.
Make sure you have endless streams of faceless, nameless SWAT-esque police officers falling off banisters, down staircases, tumbling down into death throes in classic action-hero swagger.
Be sure to have that one character who is so tough that bullets cannot make him die—he gets shot again and again, but just keeps on shooting his gun. Preferably while yelling; it will make him live longer.
Make sure to include at least one shot of a face in deep anguish, and then pull the camera straight up on a crane as he throws his heads back to the heavens screaming. Bonus points if you rotate the camera while pulling up.
When helicopters explode, be sure to film the explosion from at least six different angles. Play them back, one after the next. This saves you the time and energy of exploding six separate helicopters.
If there is a skylight, be sure and drop people through it, rappelling upside down on ropes, firing machine guns. Have at least one sequence where glass falls down in slow motion.
If the villains are not wearing fully decked-out black combat gear, they should be wearing immaculately tailored three-piece suits and have identical haircuts. Dark sunglasses are encouraged, but optional.
At least one character in the film should have a rocket launcher. Bonus points if both good and bad guys have one.
Also, be sure to remember the cardinal rules of action films:
Yelling while firing automatic weaponry makes characters kill more bad guys than simply firing the gun without yelling. Also, it slows down time.
Diving in slow motion prevents bullets from being needlessly lodged into your hero's torso, no matter how close the enemies are or how many armed guards are firing automatic weaponry in that direction.
If a character is shot in the head, a good length for the death sequence is one or two minutes. Any longer will seem unnatural.
When the female lead sacrifices herself for the man she loves and gets shot, her death sequence must take at least twenty-seven minutes of screen time.
Bullet casings each have the comparable mass of tiny feathers, and should fall to the ground thusly.
When two best friends are policemen, one must always use the line, "The next time we meet, we will be enemies," at least once in the film. It never gets old.
The tough female romantic lead must hate the hero's guts at first, but even though she hangs out with dozens of beefy macho guys, the hero's machismo swagger will always suitably impress her.
Pounding drums for the action sequence score, violins for the tear-jerking scenes. That way, the audience knows how to feel. Besides, many action actors get paid by the line, so never use dialogue when a slow-motion close-up and a violin score will do the job.
Most important of all, don't bother to have your characters stop and reload their guns. It just wastes time.
Follow these steps, and we are certain that your film will be a box-office smash in Korea. Then, we can step in, remake the film scene for scene, but replace the Asian actors with white people. We'll make a fortune.
(Judge's note: I am certain this was a real letter.)
A flagrantly unoriginal film, 2009 steals every Hollywood action film cliché imaginable and simply dubs them into Korean. In exactly the same way a film like Jet Li's The One manages to take every single cool element from science-fiction and action films over the last twenty years and somehow make them suck, 2009 is a hodge-podge of gunfights, slow-motion sequences and horribly truncated dialogue that bares little resemblance to all the other cool films it stole the ideas from.
Of course, even a cheesy action film has its share of awesome moments, if you are in the right frame of mind for them—which is to say, no mind at all. So if you're hankering for some cross-cultured shoot-'em-up fun, sans intellect, then 2009 could be the prescription to your cowbell fever.
Not a bad rental one lazy night when your brain cells decide to get drunk and switch off for the evening, 2009: Lost Memories is the Korean equivalent of fast food cinema. You can travel to the other side of the planet if you want, but be warned: They make it exactly the same everywhere these days.
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Scales of Justice
Studio: ADV Films
• Original Korean Trailer
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