Recalled (Naeilui Kieok)

Korea (2021) Dir. Seo Yoo-Min

There are countless stories about amnesiac protagonists plagued by the gaps in their memories. Whilst this is fertile ground for creating tense and often shocking thrillers, they tend to follow a similar path. Is there anything new to add to this genre?

Following an accident, Soo-Jin (Seo Yea-ji) has been left with amnesia, and even with the help of her husband Ji-hoon (Kim Kang-woo), remembering basic things about her life proves difficult. Taking it one day at a time, Soo-Jin leaves the multi-story apartment block they have just moved into to go for a walk, meeting a little girl (Park Bom) in the lift. Suddenly, Soo-Jin has a premonition of the girl dying after being hit by a truck.

She follows the girl and true enough she is about to be hit by a truck but is saved by Soo-Jin who is then saved herself by Ji-hoon. Soo-Jin continues to see future fates of people at the apartment block but is considered a nuisance when she tries to intercept them. Meanwhile, a chance encounter with a former colleague (Yeom Hye-ran) reveals details about Ji-hoon and their marriage which leaves Soo-Jin very worried.

Unless they are supremely confident in their abilities, most directors tend to start small then work their way up to tackling an overcrowded genre, but we are living in an age where this doesn’t appear to be a concern. Seo Yoo-Min looks to be indicative of modern directors who want to hit the ground running with their debut, and Recalled is his way of making that big first time splash.

Bringing fresh ideas to a concept as well covered as memory loss is a challenge, and Seo has stepped up by being rather clever about it. The story lines tend to get quite knotty and misleading through the wide open playing field of problems created by unreliable recall, to which Seo has responded by using this to his advantage rather than as a plot crutch, twisting the outcome right until the end.

Opening with Soo-Jin in hospital, heavily bandaged about the head and very confused, with hubby Ji-hoon by her side, there is already a mystery as to what actually happened. Seo isn’t going to tell us just yet, otherwise that is half the story ruined, meaning we are off to a good start in wondering where the story will take us. This becomes a common theme for the film, making the predictable less predictable.

Whilst Soo-Jin is recovering at home, Ji-hoon is trying to organise emigration to Canada but doesn’t mention this to Soo-Jin for the moment. Generally, his behaviour towards Soo-Jin is very protective and well meaning, perhaps a little too concerned when it comes to giving Soo-Jin her medication and calming her down every time she has an episode.  

His secrecy away from home paints a picture of different insecure man – he has a tracer app on his phone to monitor Soo-Jin when she is out, and more often than not, he isn’t where he says he is. The tracer helps in preventing Soo-Jin from being hit by the truck at the last second, but all this does is make Ji-Hoon more paranoid about Soo-Jin’s safety, making the audience more leery towards him.

Meanwhile, the police are investigating the theft of tools from a construction site and for the moment think it is an inside job by the site manager (Kim Jong-goo). However, the CCTV footage shows someone driving away from the site on the night in question – Ji-hoon. When interviewed about Ji-hoon’s whereabouts, Soo-Jin gets odd flashes of herself falling from a high place, at odds with the premonitory visions she usually has.

Compounding the mystery further, Soo-Jin is rocked by revelations from her erstwhile colleague about her abusive marriage to Ji-hoon, learning of his extreme jealousy and possessiveness. Soo-Jin is given her belongings back which include photos of her with another man she doesn’t recognise. Later, Soo-Jin sees the man being killed in a vision and tries to warn the police, who don’t believe in her predictive powers.

Are these powers real? The doctors say it is déjà vu but that is supposedly recalling what has happened, not what might – or will – happen. This moves the story into psychological thriller territory, adding an extra layer of intrigue to the drama. Seo initially plays it cool then ups the ante, adding subtle horror vibes to Soo-Jin’s visions by showing only the upsetting bits, creating a sense of terror within the world around her.

It is always a concern for audiences that plots with numerous threads and tangential facets to them are not left dangling at the end or don’t collapse in on themselves, which even seasoned writers struggle with, especially in a 99-minute film. Luckily, Seo is a seasoned screenwriter and manages not only to bring every skein and tiny detail together but also gives plenty of thought to the plausibility and logic to the twists.

Directing for the first time, Seo has clearly studied the genre yet is mindful to inject his ideas into the mix, partly via Soo-Jin’s fleeting presages, a gimmick never overused but is extended to surreal reified moments that flesh out a plot turn. Seo tells his story at a constant pace, and demonstrates he knows how to use the camera to create atmosphere and dread, eschewing a musical soundtrack for extra eeriness.

Providing the film with its anchor is Seo Yea-ji’s performance as Soo-Jin, treading a fine line between distressed victim and pro-active seeker of answers with conviction. Kim Kang-woo handles the ambiguity of Ji-hoon with similar aplomb, keeping us guessing about him throughout.

Recalled is not just a wholly engaging, tense, psychological thrill ride and a strong debut for Seo Yoo-Min, it also shows that with a little imagination it is possible to add a new twist to established concepts. With Korean cinema already bursting with reputable genre filmmakers, it will be interesting to see what Seo does next.

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