So once upon a time there was this Korean director called Kwak Jae-yong. He made a couple of fairly popular but unmemorable films in the 90’s, but then created an absolute phenomenon in 2001 with ‘My Sassy Girl”. It surfed the Korean wave, and was a genuine pan-asian and international success. He followed it up with some other (though arguably increasingly lesser) fabulous movies (‘The Classic’, ‘Windstruck’, ‘Cyborg Girl’ and ‘My Mighty Princess’) which maybe didn’t ever quite hit the heights of popularity of MSG, but certainly made him a Korean director of note. He then teamed up with Tsui Hark and wrote the uneven ‘All About Women’. And then for 8 years he all but disappeared (we will discount the risible Mainland Chinese effort ‘Meet Miss Anxiety’, because everyone else has). But his films were an important part of my asian cinematic education, and I always looked out for a new film by him. And then I kinda forgot. Until ‘Time Renegades’ nearly passed me by. Mostly because the title sounded awful. But then the penny dropped, and I decided to give it a go.. although with a very sceptical attitude. Was I right? Read on!
Right.. so this is complicated. On New Years Eve 1982, High School Teacher Ji-hwan (Jo Jung-suk) proposes to his girlfriend Yoon-jung (Lim Soo-jung), but is critically injured whilst chasing a bag snatcher. On New Years Eve 2015, Police Detective Geon-woo (Lee Jun-uk) is critically injured in the line of duty. Both of them are saved via the same piece of medical equipment, and we see that the pair are linked through their dreams. Ji-hwan is haunted by visions of the future, Geon-woo by the mysteries of the past. When Geon-woo meets So-eun (Lim Soo-jung again), he is struck by the fact she is identical in looks (although not personality) to his dream-mates fiancée. However, when he realises that Yoon-jung is destined to be the victim of a serial killer back in 1983, he attempts to guide Ji-hwan into changing past events. They fail to save Yoon-jung, but the pair work together to use knowledge of the future to alter events in the past, which of course has repercussions in the present day. And as the pair unravel the mystery behind what happened back 30 odd years ago, the link between the two identical girls is revealed.
So that was a confusing synopsis, and to be honest it is a little confusing in the early parts of this film to work out what is going on, as the film takes past in two different time periods concurrently. Luckily Kwak makes clever use of set design, colour and filters to ensure we keep track of events. Lim Soo-jung is a great enough actress to give two similar but different performances, and she has a genuine chemistry with both leads to invest us in both eras. Jo Jung-suk is perfect as the somewhat sappy teacher from the 80’s, with Lee Jun-uk giving a more time-appropriate harder edge to his modern day Police Officer (although with a comic touch).
Whilst not quite time-travel the film wisely decides not to delve too deeply into the mechanics of the dream sharing – we fundamentally start the film at a point where both the male leads pretty much understand what is going on, and we are not overwhelmed with too much explanation. Of course there are giant plot holes, but the film actually tells the viewer not to worry about the detail and just enjoy the ride. Whilst it all sounds rather science-fiction-y, it is a movie that is most definitely more interested in themes that Kwak has explored in his previous successes – about fate, destiny and (spoilers) reincarnation.
That’s not to say the script isn’t averse to throwing up a juicy mystery (just who is the serial killer?), throwing us red herrings and a number of potential suspects. And in the modern day segments, the actions of Geon-woo’s new boss, Lt. Kang (Jung Jin-young), gives us something else to unravel.
Fundamentally? It’s the sort of genre-mashing romantic drama that Korean cinema is really really good at, and doesn’t do often enough these days. Kwak is a master of this, and it is great to see him working back in this mode. Moreover, it feels much tighter than his previous successes, which were guilty of being overlong and stuffed with irrelevant characters and pointless diversions. Maybe sometimes the score is a little overbearing (and feels a little like it is channeling ‘Windstruck’)
The worst thing about “Time Renegades” is the english title. Other than that it is a fabulously constructed, acted and delivered movie. As long as you accept it as a romantic drama with police procedural and sci-fi leanings, you’ll have a blast. Highly Recommended. If this one doesn’t get a Western Remake, i’ll be very surprised. After a few years of being pretty ‘meh’ overall, Mainstream Korean Cinema is getting very interesting again.