Will You Be There? (Dangshin Geogi Iteojoorraeyo)

Korea (2016) Dir. Hong Ji-Young

If Korean cinema isn’t slaughtering its inhabitants or revisiting the Japanese Occupation, its latest fad is time travelling or manipulation of time. Titles like 11:00AM, Vanishing Time: A Boy Who Returned, The Phone and Spirits’ Homecoming (which covers both time parallels and the Japanese occupation) are now joined by this adaptation of Guillaume Musso’s novel Seras-tu là?

Surgeon Han Soo-hyun (Kim Yun-seok) is about to leave an impoverished village in Cambodia when he stays to operate on a sick child. By way of thanks, her elderly guardian gives Soo-hyun some pills purported to bring his wishes true. On the plane journey back to Korea Soo-hyun takes a pill and wakes up in a phone booth at Seoul station – in 1985! 

Not only that but the first person he runs into is his younger self (Byun Yo-han)! After a brief an awkward meeting Soo-Hyun returns to 2015 but ponders the idea of seeing his late first love Yeon-A (Chae Seo-jin), a dolphin trainer who died thirty years ago. Having convinced his younger self of his identity, Soo-hyun concocts a plan to save Yeon-A’s life in 1985 but hasn’t much time left as he himself is dying of lung cancer.

Apparently Musso rejected requests for film adaptations of his novels from his native France, Europe and Hollywood but felt confident in Korean Hong Ji-Young to create an interesting version of his work. Perhaps it was the idea of a female perspective that appealed to Musso but Tinsel Town’s loss is most definitely our gain, so let’s for once salute the famous French caprice.  

Time travel in fiction will always be subject to credibility issues, whether they are addressed up front as a plausible sci-fi gimmick like with Doctor Who or simply relay on the goodwill of the audience to suspend their disbelief. The mystical pills supplied by a philosophical and blind village elder are enough for us to accept the ensuing miracle as fact, since remote villages are often a haven for supernatural behaviour.  

At first the meetings between him and his younger self involve the pair trying to reconcile the bizarre situation they are in, the 30 year-old Soo-hyun understandably struggling the most. Having seen Yeon-A, older Soo-hyun is happy to leave things there but when the younger one asks about Yeon-A in the future, he realises that she is dead and wants to prevent it happening.

Now a father to a 20 year-old daughter Soo-A (Park Hye-soo), Soo-hyun doesn’t seem to think about the consequences his presence in 1985 on his current world until the first attempt at subverting history yields some interesting results involving So-A and Soo-hyun’s best friend, policeman Tae-Ho (Kim Sang-Ho and An Se-Ha, old and young respectively).

Before anyone starts complaining about the paradox of two versions of one person from different time lines being in the same place together, no it isn’t addressed but the repercussion of the changing of events is, which is a fair compromise. Granted, it should have been a central crisis point had the story started a lot sooner, but then again it would be too much of a repetitive crutch to eke some drama out of the concept.

First and foremost this is a human drama about regrets and poor decision making in life, and whilst I cannot refer to the original novel, Hong’s script embraces this as its driving force over the time travel concept. However this is not to the detriment of either facet as one begets the other, essentially grounding the story within the realm of realism much more than it should, allowing the characters to flourish as unique opposites despite being the same person.

Older Soo-hyun is naturally the more grizzled and worldly of the two, perhaps a little hardened by his life experiences but empathetic nonetheless. Young Soo-hyun is not exactly selfish but is consumed with work too much for Yeon-A’s liking, yet this doesn’t stop her wanting a baby with Soo-hyun. The hindsight behind older Soo-hyun’s actions takes a while to sink in with his younger self, the results speaking for themselves.

Perhaps the most poignant revelation, without spoiling things, is the amount of collateral damage incurred by the time hopping actions of the two Soo-hyuns. Eschewing the usual formula of change bringing reward or salvation, each time history is altered there is a small consequence, a nice touch to reinforce the butterfly theory and remind us that fate exists for a reason.

It should be a hokey and whimsical yarn where the drama is hampered by an implausible premise, but this isn’t the case, at least until the final act which comes as a surprise given the nature of the story up until that point. To add some extra tension, the pills only seem to work for twenty minutes and there is no guarantee where Soo-hyun will wake up in 1985, that is if he can get to sleep.

As a director, Hong’s gender hasn’t influenced the story one iota in terms of pushing any feminine agenda. Yet, she has noted the change in attitudes across the decades quite succinctly – in 1985, the women shown are largely seeking male attention; in 2015 they are strong willed, career driven and answer to no man. Aesthetically, the female fashions are spot on too.

The real engine of the film is the dynamic of veteran Kim Yun-seok and Byun Yo-han as the two Soo-hyuns. Noted for this roles in action thrillers this is Kim at his most mellow but his presence is still commanding. Byun I am not too familiar with but he mirrors many of Kim’s actions and trait well whilst creating his own unique personality for the character.

If picking apart concepts like time travel is your thing then avoid Will You Be There? since you’ll be missing out on what is a compelling and emotionally curious fantasy drama. In exploring the cost of bad decisions and sacrifices this is a refreshing change from convoluted sci-fi frippery.

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