1909 looms large in the minds of many Koreans as the year in which nationalist Ahn Chung-Gun assassinated Japanese prefect Ito Hirobumi at a train station. Ito's death set in motion the Korean Nationalist movement, which, in combination with Japan's WW2 defeat, paved the way for Korean independence in 1945.
In the timeline of 2009: Lost Memories, Ahn was killed before he could carry out his lethal mission, and Japan won World War II as an ally of the United States. Consequently, Chosun folded into the Nipponese empire, and Seoul became Japan's third-largest city.
The story begins in a Nihon-ified Korea: Japanese-language street signs and billboard advertisements blanket the familiar Seoul skyline, with pockets of Korean culture existing only in the slums and outskirts of a Japan-dominated Chosun. We are introduced to a police investigation of a Korean terrorist group Hureisenjin, who claims history was hijacked by the Japanese in 1909 ... and that for 100 years Koreans were living in a false timeline, twisted to serve Japanese interests at the expense of Korea's 'real' history. With no visible evidence to support such a radical claim, Hureisenjin members are dismissed as delusional cranks and hunted by Seoul's JBI (Japan Bureau of Investigation).
A powerful scene between the two leads (Japanese and Korean JBI detectives played by Toru Nakamura and Jang Dong-Gun) beautifully captured the essence of the film's theme on the conflict between of national identity, and personal loyalty:
Jang: I don't get it. Why are the Hureisenjin fighting so hard?
Nakamura: Obsessed with the past, I guess. Chosun disappeared and was reborn as a part of united Japan. They're in denial about reality. That's the problem.
If I had Korean blood, I would understand how you feel. But let's be realisitic. You and I are Japanese. You don't need to get emotional about something like that.
(offering a gentle smile in an effort reassure his friend, he then says ...)
For what it's worth, I've never thought of you as a 'Korean.'
Jang's pained expression in reaction to Nakamura's well-intentioned comment was a moving precursor of things to come; JBI's investigation of the Hureisenjin leads them to the mysterious Inoue Foundation, and uncover a century-long conspiracy that would drive two lifelong friends to become enemies in a bitter fight for Chosun's future.
As befitting a film with blockbuster ambitions, 2009: Lost Memories has its share of high-flying gun battles, but its best achievement was in the intricate dialogue and its considerable effort in developing a character who would ultimately become the villain of the story; the audience can empathize with the motivations of the Japanese conspirators who saw changing Korean history in 1909 as the only means to save its own citizens from the devastation of WW2 ... even while we root for the hero's desperate mission to undo them. Throughout, Nakamura and Jang (who learned the 70% of the film's Japanese lines phonetically) play their roles with exquisite sensitivity and intensity.
While the themes of divided honor, conflicted loyalty and tragic friendship are standard fare in Asian cinema, the superb execution, along with the daring premise (imagine the number of doors slammed in the faces of the filmmakers in their efforts to secure financing for a movie that depicts Japan as the ruler of Korea) sets 2009: Lost Memories in a league of its own.
Website: Lost Memories: 2009
Trailer: QuickTime Trailer
2009: Lost Memories can be purchased via Two zShop Sellers through Amazon.com or ZoomMovie.
Thanks to bride and suladog for those links! :)