I recently watched the 2001 Korean science fiction movie called 2009 Lost Memories (2009 로스트메모리즈, IMDB entry) written and directed by Lee Si-myung (이시명). The movie is set in Seoul and Manchuria, both parts of the Japanese empire in an alternate 21st century and tells the story of a militant Korean resistance movement trying to restore the “true” history of the 20th century that gave Korea its freedom from Japanese oppression as early as 1945. It was definitely not up to the standard of some of the excellent movies I have seen lately coming out of South Korea. In fact, I don’t recommend this movie to anyone. The movie is, however, worth a few comments and a quick summary.
The truth is that I have always had a weak spot for movies, like this one, which make attempts at “alternative history.” Perhaps my favorite alternative history work was the book and movie Fatherland, which I came across just out of high school. I haven’t the slightest idea what real historians have to say about the work (or what I would think going back to watch it now), but at the time, it certainly added to my interest in history. While historically based movies of all kinds do much the same, the less common genre of alternative history can be especially good at generating an excitement about history and historical problems, something that gets forgotten when we plough through the scenes in search of inaccuracies and anachronisms. Alternative history also shares with science fiction (and in this case, the movie is at home in both genres) an often surprisingly transparent look at the contemporary world of the filmmakers.
The movie, and indeed Korea’s tragic alternate history as a colony of Japan stretching into the 21st century, hinges on a dramatic change of events beginning in 1909. Itô Hirobumi’s assassin Ahn Jung-geun (안중근) fails in his attempt to kill the Meiji oligarch in 1909 due to the intervention of a Japanese soldier named Inoue, a time traveller from the 21st century. Because of this tragic failure of one of greatest heroes of Korean nationalist history, and Inoue’s knowledge of the tragic events which will lead to the fall of the Japanese empire, Japan is able to chart a new course. In a montage of historical events shown us in the opening credits we see how this alternate 20th century unfolds. In 1936 Japan, and its ally, the US, enter WWII together. As late as 1943 Japan takes over Manchuria and the war comes to an end (against Germany alone?) in 1945 when a nuclear weapon was dropped on Berlin. Japan becomes a permanent member of the security council in 1960, launches its “Sakura 1” satellite in 1965, holds olympic games in Nagoya in 1988 (that is, not in Seoul) and the 2002 World cup is held in Japan alone. In this last image we see what I guess must be a famous Korean soccer player (anyone know his name?) with a prominent Japanese badge on his uniform. The credits come to an end as the movie opens in Seoul, whose streets and buildings bear a suspicious resemblance to a certain street outside Shinjuku’s south exit. We are also flashed an image of a massive commemorative statue honoring the invasions of Toyotomi Hideyoshi.
I don’t think the director could have tried any harder to stir up nationalist feelings in Korean audiences. We have all the ingredients necessary to excite anti-Japanese sentiment and even manage to ally imperial Japan with the US, that other great enemy of the Korean people. And all of this is shown before we even get started! The Japanese empire of the alternate future apparently (we are shown a map in a police station) controls Korea, Manchuria, Taiwan, coastal China, Vietnam, and a large chunk of the east coast of Russia.
The story then begins as two JBI (Japan Bureau of Investigation) investigators, Sakamoto (Korean) and Saigô (a Japanese actor) together trying to thwart the terrorist attacks of the “Chosun Liberation League” (朝鮮解放同盟, also frequently referred to as the 不令朝鮮人). Being the noble sort of terrorists that they are, however, they take hostages but keep them safely locked in a room so that the Japanese SWAT teams can safely storm the building and kill them all after they have suffered a few hundred casualties.
For most of the movie, it is not altogether clear why the Koreans would still be seeking independence, they appear to be doing quite well. When the mysterious beauty who leads the freedom fighters claims that “All we want is to get back our country” Sakamoto replies, “Nobody wants it back. Your only making other Koreans suffer” Their assimilated people now seem to have penetrated the higher ranks of the police force, despite their Korean accents, and Saigô assures his partner and best friend that, “I have never thought of you as a Korean….お前も俺も日本人だ” Our hero Sakamoto apparently hates Kimchi (it is “too spicy”) and loves Sushi – how could one recover one’s Korean identity after that?
Soon however, the dark side of the Japanese empire is revealed when Sakamoto discovers that the Inoue Cultural Foundation has been secretly hiding a time machine that it used to create this alternate history. The time machine, which is apparently set to 1909 by default, is in fact a large stone slab from Manchuria. As we learn later in the movie, in the original 21st century, a united (in 2008, apparently) and independent Korea becomes the new power in East Asia (apparently swallowing North Korea was done with little difficulty) and demands that China returns Manchuria to its rightful owner. The selfish Chinese refuse to give Manchuria to the national heir to Koguryo, but allow “joint research” by Korean and Japanese scholars on the history of the region. Along with other evidence that Manchuria should be returned to Korea, the Japanese discover the powerful Korean time machine, which they use to reverse their tragic defeat in World War II. This is fascinating to watch given the prominent importance of nationalist symbols such as the Koguryo stone tablets in Manchuria, and this scene is doubly relevant given the recent historical crisis between China and Korea.
When Sakamoto gets close to the truth the Japanese conspiracy machine gears up for action and turns against him. Under the wise guidance of a Yoda-like confucian scholar hidden in the basement of a Korean bar (the military leader of the rebellion, Haerin, is a bar waitress), Sakamoto learns the true history of the Korean nation. He immediately rejects his Japanese identity and joins the militants in their quest to restore their “lost memories.”
To give away the ending: Saigô finds out his family would actually have grown up in Hiroshima, where the US atomic bomb would surely have killed his wife and daughter (apparently we must assume he was born in and married the same woman in Japan’s real 20th century history). He must defend the glory and prosperity of the new Japan and protect it from the shame and defeat of “real” history by preventing Sakamoto from killing Inoue.
In a ridiculous climax, the two former friends travel back to 1909 and Sakamoto manages to shoot both Inoue and Saigô, allowing the heroic Ahn Jung-geun to shoot Itô Hirobumi, and Sakamoto goes on to join the Korean resistance.
Despite all the usual difficulties inherent in movies which include time travel, and the completely unproblematized heroic nature of the Korean resistance, the most frustrating element of the movie is the complete lack of creativity on the part of the directors in their conclusion. It is as if it didn’t occur to any of the script writers that there might have been a unique opportunity for our two main characters, Saigô and Sakamoto to travel back into time and themselves steer the path of the 20th century in such a way that both the tragedy of WWII and the horrors of colonial rule etc. could have been avoided. For example, Saigô could, for example, have shot Ahn Jung-geun and gone on to be advisor to Itô while Sakamoto kill Inoue and go on to warn the Korean resistance movement of the tragedy that awaited them in the form of post-independence civil war. You get the idea. The disappointment is the complete lack of any surprise in the movie’s conclusion. Or rather, that was the surprise.
The movie makes use of many of the prominent symbols of Korean nationalism, but doesn’t demonize all Japanese. We are sympathetic to Sakamoto and constantly shown images of his loving wife Yuriko and daughter Keiko (though in one scene this is juxtaposed with images of the dying freedom fighters in the bar’s basement as if to say that the Japanese are happy while the Koreans suffer). Yuriko is portrayed as the loyal kimino-dressed, tea-serving hero’s wife, silently bearing the horrible knowledge that her husband will leave her forever when he travels into the past (she bids him farewell with a deep bow and a somber “いってらっしゃい”). Most of the movie is in Japanese, and despite the Korean accents and the occasional odd phrase, the Japanese was not bad at all. The acting often left more to be desired.
The movie begins and ends with a celebration of the assassin (Yoda chides us for using that term for Korea’s hero in “Lost Memories”) Ahn Jung-geun and the Korean resistance movement. Ahn Jung-geun was also made the topic of a 2004 movie Thomas Ahn Jung-geun which apparently caused a stir in Japan.
The oppressive and violent nature of Japanese control over Korea is undeniable and its memory (certainly not lost to Koreans) is utilized to the maximum in this movie that celebrates unlimited sacrifice in the face of national humiliation. However, there are moments when their resistance and especially its “terrorist” elements feel awkward in a movie that portrays an assimilated Korea. To reproduce this feeling, try to imagine a movie set in the 1990s which portrays a violent Okinawan resistance movement which wants to gain independence for the islands after more than a century of humiliating control by the Japanese. This comparison only works to the extent that the movie portrays an almost completely assimilated populace (although two Korean police officers apparently speak Korean to each other when in private). The result is a somewhat anachronistic portrayal of nationalist struggle in an environment completely separated from its original repressive colonial context.
Sakamoto is asked by a “terrorist” at the beginning of the movie “Are you Korean?” He avoids the question and replies in Korean, “You are nothing but a criminal.” The camera zooms in on the handsome but soon to be dead Korean independence fighter as he asks, “Is fighting for your country a crime?”