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2009: Lost Memories (2002)
Director: Lee Si-myung

review by Christopher Geary
Spoiler Alert!
Due to a failed assassination in 1909 Manchuria, the last century of world history has turned out different to the one we know. Here's an alternate timeline with Japan and the USA allied against the Nazis, A-bombs dropped on Berlin at the end of WWII, and Korea occupied permanently by the Japanese.

Now it's 2009 in this Asian parallel world, and freedom fighters of the Hureisenjin (the Korean Independence Army, subject to the unfortunate acronym KIA), invade a cultural centre in Seoul and lockup some well-to-do hostages. The Japanese Bureau of Investigation (JBI) assigns slick super-cops Sakamoto (Jang Dong-gun, Korean, like his character) and Saigo (Toru Nakamura, inscrutably Japanese, through and through of course) to counter-terrorist duty, and a veritable bloodbath ensues. Some of the SWAT troops are shot, but all of the Hureisenjin get slaughtered, violently and ruthlessly, whether they are fully armed and extremely dangerous or simply remain defiant when cornered. Clearly, the JBI refuse to negotiate with terrorists, and don't take prisoners, either!

However, there's a mystery surrounding the Hureisenjin's purpose and strategy, and it falls to Sakamoto to uncover the links between the Inoue Foundation, organisers of the exhibition at the targeted cultural centre, and the outlawed Koreans' unexpected interest in a religious artefact, the Lunar Soul, a stone knife allegedly used in ancient ritual sacrifices, and the monolithic Temple Stone, which turns out to be a portal for time-travel, once used by the Japanese to rewrite history.

Although the fetishistic gunplay and stylised action scenes that dominate 2009: Lost Memories are likely to satisfy undemanding fans of Asian shoot 'em up movies, there is little here to commend the film, or its blatantly pro-Korean, anti-Japanese plotline to anyone looking for a particularly intriguing or even palatable Asian SF thriller. The drama portrays all Japanese, except for Saigo (whose staunchly traditionalist family appear trapped in some ghastly colonial TV soap, like a Japanese equivalent of movie Pleasantville) as nasty brutes, while the Hureisenjin are presented as magnificently honourable patriots or angelic wannabe martyrs granted immunity from criticism by heroic death scenes choreographed to a suitably elegiac score.

It's not simply the unsubtly portentous music that undermines almost every dramatic moment in the film, though. The gross sentimentalism of Lee Si-myung's direction is crushingly inept, despite being a fairly typical example of the familiar pitfalls of modern Asian cinema. With all the technical proficiency on display here, closely mimicking Hollywood standards, western viewers might rightly expect the storytelling vibe to be just as contemporary.

Sadly, for all it's striving for a futuristic sheen, 2009: Lost Memories remains stuck in the past. Even the JBI security forces' bullet-strewn extermination of all paramilitary resistance during the ship-borne finale is overly theatrical, demeaning the tragedy of wholesale slaughter with the absurd melodrama of an orphaned Korean boy getting killed by trigger-happy SWAT police. Here, the overly emotional Koreans are idolised for their gallantry, as when untrustworthy 'defector' Sakamoto, no longer a despised outsider when he takes up arms to defend his countrymen, is finally accepted into the KIA ranks by even the most suspicious of the Hureisenjin. It's not excruciating to watch, but it is irritating, and it's just an obvious example of how this film's potential for genuine SF, moral outrage and political drama, is weakened by the filmmakers' blandly simplistic narrative mores and techniques. Admittedly, the balancing of ultra-violence and sympathetic characters in a sci-fi premise is a difficult trick to pull off, but it can be done as a commercial project, if mixed with an element of comedy, as evidenced by the blend of gory urban battles and affecting pathos in Paul Verhoeven's savage but witty RoboCop.

The commercial appeal and artistic success of 2009: Lost Memories is limited by its complete lack of humour. There are only a few unintentionally funny moments (such as those supposedly meaningful looks often traded by Sakamoto and Saigo) to break the monotony of it overbearing seriousness. Without any light-hearted or engagingly satirical moments to sweep it along, the wannabe-epic story collapses under its burden of unwholesomely patriotic fervour.
2009: Lost Memories

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