Judge Joel Pearce warns you against spending too much time attempting to figure out this convoluted Korean import.
Would you sacrifice tomorrow to remember the past?
There are a lot of bad movies. Some have simply been born from terrible ideas, so the lack of quality in the end product is not surprising. Others are so carefully crafted and hold such potential that you are left wondering what went wrong along the way. Yesterday is one of the latter; and the potential it squanders makes it a terrible disappointment.
Facts of the Case
An overworked cop in 2020 Korea named Yun (Kim Seung-woo) has spent the last few years hunting down a serial killer named Goliath (Choi Min-su). Goliath has been murdering a number of scientists that were all involved with a long-abandoned genetic modification program. His most recent target is a retiring police commissioner, who happens to have a forensic specialist daughter named Hisu (Kim Yoon-jin, Shiri). When the commissioner is kidnapped, Yun and Hisu reluctantly work together and discover that the government connections to Goliath go much deeper than they could have imagined. They also learn that the three of them are quite closely connected, in a very strange way.
The script of Yesterday is so full of potential—but is also every bit as full of critical missteps. Secret government agencies creating clones of killers, then losing control over them, is the stuff of great pulp cinema, even though it has been done numerous times before. The discussions of genetic modification and cloning are fascinating, as is the question of how much we are controlled by our genetic makeup. If people were to be cloned, how deep would the connection be? Do we have some kind of soul that our clones would not have? Would our clones be exactly like us, or would that depend on the circumstances under which they grew up?
Unfortunately, the script doesn't handle these questions very well. It approaches humans using the metaphor of a computer. Our genes are the "code" with which our "software" is built. If we have certain genetic codes, we can be controlled completely, even to the point of arriving at a certain destination at a certain time. That approach to human nature is far too simplistic for a film of this scope; it means that the characters simply trudge on to their eventual fate. It removes a lot of what could have been very compelling about these characters. Instead of seeking answers out of curiosity, they are seeking answers because they were programmed to do so.
The progression of the story is also quite muddled as well. When a science fiction world (which, in this case, is very well designed) is combined with scientific concepts, deep personal connections, the flashbacks of numerous characters and a complicated political situation, great writing is needed to ensure that the audience can follow everything. I felt completely lost in this film at times, and I found myself giving up on the plot, simply waiting to see the next action sequence. I knew that eventually everything would be explained towards the end (which it is, at great length), so it wasn't necessary to follow each thread of the story throughout the film. Great thrillers have us constantly formulating theories and waiting on the edges of our seats as each twist unfolds. By the time I had figured out who everyone was in Yesterday, I had pretty much guessed the whole outcome.
The Rebuttal Witnesses
Despite the many problems Yesterday has, there is no denying that it has a sense of style. It is beautifully shot, with fantastic action sequences and very slick production values. The shootouts are almost reminiscent of Ridley Scott's recent films: kinetic, slightly overcranked and full of grisly details. Even though the plot gets completely muddled, it's always clear what's happening when the bullets start flying. Most of the film is shot handheld, and the camera movement pulls us right into what's happening on screen. Even during the dull segments of the film, it was always a pleasing aesthetic experience.
The performances are also good. Even when I was completely lost and bored by the convoluted story, I found the characters were both sincere and compelling. It's difficult to put in a good performance in a good movie, but it must be far harder to deliver one when the script is full of quasi-techno-babble that sounds ridiculous. The entire cast throws themselves into their roles with the level of gusto and respect than the script deserves.
ADV is also to be commended for the most part. The video transfer is beautiful, with accurate colors even in the most difficult scenes. The black level is solid, and there is as much sharpness and detail as I have ever seen in one of their releases. I have the same gripe with the sound that I have had in past live action ADV releases: The English track is a decent 5.1 surround track, but it has clearly been created using the original 2.0 Korean track that is also included. The Korean DVD of Yesterday has both a Dolby 5.1 and DTS track. Why can't ADV get a hold of these tracks? Whenever I have watched recent Korean DVDs, I have been very impressed by the technical quality of the discs. There is no reason for us not to get that same level of quality. Aside from that complaint, the sound transfer is good. Special mention must be made of the dub, which manages to capture the tone of the film, remains perfectly timed with the lip movements, and never strays far away from the direct translation of the subtitles. It's one of the best dub tracks I have ever heard, and it almost makes me forgive them for the flat stereo Korean track. Almost.
There are also quite a few extras on the disc. The first is Movie Highlights, which is an assemblage of all the action scenes in the film strung together. Think of it as a 15-minute version of the film for people who don't care about plot. Since the image and sound quality is so lousy, I don't know why people would watch this in lieu of just scanning through the DVD to those scenes. Following that, there is a 30-minute production featurette from Korea. Unlike our featurettes, it is mostly pieced-together behind-the-scenes footage. This is more entertaining than the silly interview segments that we often get over here, so it's worth a watch to see the conditions under which the film was made. The interviews are in their own section of the extras, and they mostly consist of the actors explaining their roles and the basic outline of the plot. They do discuss some other aspects of production, though, making it worth a scan-through. I am always amazed at the differences and complications that arise when shooting a film outside of Hollywood, in conditions that many American stars would not even consider. They all seem to talk about the script as being spectacular, so perhaps something has gotten lost in the translation.
I wish that I could recommend Yesterday to more people. There are a number of things to like about it, but the script and plot are so hopelessly muddled that I can't in good conscience say that you should buy it. If you like action movies and science fiction, though, I think you will find it to be worth a rental. Just don't work too hard trying to follow all of the plot threads.
Yesterday is sitting right on the fence between innocent and guilty, so I am using my rights to withhold judgment. (I do have those rights, don't I?) ADV is free to go, but gets a slap upside the head for the audio transfer.
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Scales of Justice
Studio: ADV Films
• "Making of" Featurette
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