Korea (2018) Dir. Lee Jeong-sub
Nobody can predict the future – we can only look at the past and learn to make the present a better place. Unless of course one can travel in time therefore, you can learn from the future to fix the past, but then you end up changing the future which will be different when you return to it. Confused? Oh, you soon will be…
Korea’s current best selling sci-fi author Jo-kyung Beak (Yang G) is being interviewed on TV about her latest novel and a “revenge porn” sex video that has been leaked on the internet which Jo-kyung refuses to comment on. Repairing to a bar afterwards, Jo-kyung finds everyone’s gossiping her – her agent is trying to spin the situation, a film producer wants to adapt her book, and a female fan may be flirting with her.
Jo-kyung the wakes up bound and gagged in an oil drum in an abandoned building. She climbs out the drum where others surround her, containing the other people from the party, who come to life and give Jo-kyung advice on how best escape the building. Meanwhile, in a secret location, global representatives are negotiating with a serial killer from the future looking to kill Jo-kyung to save her race, known as Fallen.
I don’t think I have ever dared opened a review with the phrase “What the hell did I just watch?” but I was sorely tempted to after watching Fallen. This baffling sci-fi drama from screenwriter turned director Lee Jeong-sub makes no concession for the audience’s ability to follow whatever is going on in Lee’s head, let alone Jo-kyung’s. The premise is admittedly enticing but Lee is in full pretension mode with the execution – I think.
Deciphering what is going on is just half the struggle, discerning the film’s message is another, and may require a brain like Stephen Hawking’s to figure it out; failing that, whatever Lee was on when he wrote the script. Maybe I am overselling the density of the story or maybe I am being my usual thick self, as this isn’t completely unwatchable and the parts sort of come together in the end, they just don’t always make sense.
Time travel has proven to be a harbinger of the audience’s need to suspend disbelief and resist forensic examination of the many paradoxes the concept incurs and Lee seemingly doesn’t care if his script fails to stand up to scrutiny either. Lee also distorts perception in a Meta manner by having the protagonist be a sci-fi author, leading us to suspect a twist waiting for us in the coda revealing it was a plot for Jo-kyung’s next book.
Following Lee’s example, I shall refrain from saying if this true or not purely for spoiler reasons although the plot is difficult to discuss without going into great detail and giving crucial things away. Jo-Kyung as a character is effectively defined by the notoriety of her private life. Along with the sex tape, Jo-kyung’s mother is a convicted serial killer (but not the Fallen in the meeting). Otherwise, she is presumed to be another pretty female placed in grave danger from which she has to fight her way out of.
Since the others in the warehouse are still perfectly groomed whilst Jo-kyung is dirty and shackled in chains, there are figments of her imagination. They seldom interact with her, only her own younger self and her best friend from school, who, along with her mother, reveal issues from Jo-kyung’s past which she has never faced up to. The partygoers discuss escape tactics, referencing film clichés to make their point, a possible attack by Lee against the predictability of the action blockbuster.
One thing this film isn’t is predictable. Who would have imagined a masked man would enter the building and start dancing with a chain, or a budgerigar would be Jo-kyung’s saviour? And what about the talking briefcase that is just like Siri? Ah, well according to the serial killer from the future, Siri is now sentient, crypto company Blockchain governs the world, and Elon Musk invented time travel (this was three years before his recent space flight)!!
Hardly a future that sounds fun but is this Jo-kyung’s fault hence the Fallen wanting her dead? Not quite. Apparently, the Fallen are cyborgs and Jo-kyung possesses an antibody in her system that makes Fallen go blind. Rather than develop something to combat this, they jumped through a sinkhole to travel back in time, and decided it would be easier to kill Jo-kyung instead. Extreme but makes sense.
More twists come out of this which I won’t divulge as I’m running out of room, although you can safely assume they only complicate matters further. The irony is that if they were broken down to their simplest form, they might be clever and cogent, which applies to so much of the story. It is probably all clear in Lee’s head too so maybe something got lost in translation from his noggin to paper, or he is on a different intellectual plane to the rest of us.
What makes this so frustrating is this is a well-made film despite its low budget, and Lee along with DP Park Min-woo have an eye for extraordinary composition and deceptive use of artistic angles to heighten a scene. The cast, led by a busy Yang G, are either on Lee’s wavelength or such good actors they look as though they are, their performances more than helping to alleviate the confusion created by the narrative.
Rarely has a film impressed me that has also baffled me to the level Fallen has. It does the individual bits right and makes for compelling viewing, but when pieced together the result is discordant and testing for those unable to fathom Lee’s objective, clouding the messages, which I assume refer to technology controlling society and the treatment of women in the public. Could Lee not have done that without time travelling cyborg assassins?