Korea (2019) Dir. Lee Soo-Sung
Imagine being in a job in which you are supposed to help others but in fact you need help yourself? I’m not talking being a politician rather a counsellor who is required to listen to the problems of others but is in need of an ear as any of his clients. That is the launching point for this light whimsical drama.
Min-Ho (Lee Sun-Goo) is a counsellor at a psychological health centre, recently divorced and caring for his difficult ill mother Sun-hee (An Min-Young). Every day people come to Min-Ho for advice but he just can’t seem to muster much energy to listen to or care about their problems. Having moved into a new apartment set up by his boss Sang-jin (Moon Young-Dong), Min-Ho has yet to unpack and settle in.
On a day off, Min-ho decides to start making his apartment homely out of boredom, in doing finding a post-it note from the previous tenant with instructions about how to clean a bowl properly. He then finds other notes around the house with similar tips and domestic advice which he puts to good use, improving his mood as he goes, which he then passes onto his clients.
Lee Soo-Sung is not a director I am familiar with though he has a decade plus career in film with a steady CV to his name. Memories is something I found on Amazon Prime, it’s 87-minute run time the deal breaker in satiating my need for a quick film fix. The title proves somewhat intriguing when it comes to its meaning and relevance to the plot, with little that is obviously to do with memories.
What evolves into a subtle pay-it-forward type story does so with scant urgency and less drama, though this doesn’t make it any less of a pleasant watch. It certainly feels like Lee is building up to something but then the film ends and we are left with an enigmatic denouement that is hopeful in tone but doesn’t sufficiently answer the niggling questions we have.
Prior to this, Min-Ho politely listens as his regular troubled clients unload, or in the case of a depressed schoolgirl (Kim Do Yeon) not wanting to unload, responding with unhelpful comments that only raise their ire. The young man who doesn’t fit in at his new job, a woman who loves to gossip, and an older man whose family think he is lazy find little solace from someone as unfulfilled as they are.
It is clear Min-Ho is meandering following his divorce, suggested as being his fault but never expanded upon, whilst looking after his mother is also putting a strain on him, Sun-hee’s erratic behaviour implying possible dementia. The truth however, is much simpler but equally dramatic, putting Min-Ho in a genuinely sympathetic light for the first time.
Understandably, Min-Ho wouldn’t be of much use to others when suffering from his own stress. Lacking sleep and energy, Min-Ho needs something to pick him up again and the random notes scattered around the apartment prove to be the very thing he needs. From simple chores, life hack tips on cleaning, and even recipes, Min-Ho finds his time and mind well occupied, and in perking up, applies some of the tricks he learned during his counselling sessions with largely positive results.
The conceit of this tale of course is the identity of the former tenant and author of the life changing post-it notes, who Sang-Jin knows but refuses to tell Min-Ho. This doesn’t stop him seeing visions of an effervescent young woman (Han Joo-Young) in the apartment, saying nothing but offering gestures of encouragement in each of the endeavours Min-Ho undertakes as detailed by the notes.
Lee leaves it until the end of the film to reveal the truth about this mystery woman, but enjoys toying with us in letting our theories run wild in interpreting her role in Min-Ho’s emotional recovery. Is she a figment of his tired imagination from a lack of sleep? Or maybe she is a ghost or guardian angel, wanting to make the apartment feel like the warm home for Min-Ho it was for her? She may even be a fantasy woman he created based on how she sounds to him in the notes.
As discussed earlier, the explanation behind this and Min-Ho handling of it is all resolved with some haste, yet by eschewing the giddy, saccharin happy ending that is practically signposted Lee leaves it all up in the air. It is effective and arguably the more suitable option of the two even if does leave us wanting more, though more frustrating is the case of the schoolgirl, the only client whose situation was gravid and topical.
Despite needing another 10 minutes or so to help wrap things up a little more efficiently, Lee utilises his time well enough in getting as much across as possible regarding the story, but a lack of substantial exposition history for Min-Ho denies him the psychological profile to make his initial funk worth investing in. As a vessel for learning about oneself and helping others by sharing this education, he is at least in the right job, so all’s well that ends well, I guess.
Whilst there is nothing exceptional about the direction, the strongest moments are found in the scenes where Min-Ho and the mystery women interact, suffused with a quaint playful charm that makes them endearing and not spooky. Han Joo-Young may do little more than smile like a mute Amelie but her presence is reassuring, bringing out more personality in Lee Sun-Goo’s Min-Ho than in the rest of the film.
There is a wistfulness about Memories that draws the audience in and Lee does enough to keep us engaged, but whilst this makes it a breezy undemanding watch, it just needs a little extra weight to make it more memorable. Be warned though, the subtitles on Amazon Prime are rife with typos and iffy translations but not enough to make it hard to follow.