Directed by Yun-su Jeon, 121 minutes, starring Min-su Choi, So-yeong Jeong, Seon-A Kim, Seung-woo Kim, and Yunjin Kim.
Three years ago, when I reviewed I'm A Cyborg, But That's OK for this site, I didn't know very much about South Korea, and looking back at that review I feel some regret at not understanding more about Korea, its culture and cinema. The Korean film industry, like the country itself, has only just reached maturity in the last decade and a half. Before 1998 – year zero for the J-Horror boom – Korean cinema was insulated, to the point where Western films themselves were barred at one point for fear that domestic cinema could not stand up next to such efforts at the box office.
The industry only began to blossom in the wake of the easing of censorship laws and a more liberal attitude towards foreign cinema towards the tail-end of the 1980s, notwithstanding some embarrassment that Korean films could not go head-to-head in terms of box office with Hollywood. It took another decade for the industry to rapidly build itself up to compete with US imports, eventually reaching almost level pegging. And that's what makes Yun-su Jeon's Yesterday such a fascinating film to discuss. Released in 2002 just as Korean culture began to experience a wider, more international exposure, Yesterday stands on the brink of the moment when Korean cinema became a force to be reckoned with.
In 2020 within a miserably reunified Korea, Seok (Seung-wu Kim) is a beleaguered and cynical police officer who has spent the last few years tracking down a serial killer, Goliath. Killing scientists connected to a genetic modification program, his grasp is far-reaching. The year before, during a raid on Goliath's gang of terrorists, Seok and his team managed to shoot dead everyone involved... including Seok's small kidnapped son. After a conference on how the study of genetics can prevent future crimes, forensic scholar Hisu (Yunjin Kim) watches in horror as her police captain father is kidnapped before her eyes by Goliath's gang.
Seok is charged with solving the case, and the headstrong Hisu insists on joining the investigative team. They work together alongside Seok's hilariously jovial government team, who are about as futuristic as an American mall goth in the year 2000: there is an assortment of brightly dyed hair, vinyl suits, and even a vast array of press-on temporary tattoos (some are glittery!) to let you know This Is The Future, And It Is Cool. (It isn't, by the way.) Will they capture Goliath? And what of the government's genetic mutation program and the strange connection the members of the team discover about each other? And can we be made to care?
It is fair to say Yesterday isn't a very good movie. As you can glimmer from the (heavily whittled down) synopsis above, its plot is confusing. Its futurism is severely dated less than a decade on - anime goggles and white towncars covered in urban graffiti are how we know who the bad guys are. And its view of a unified Korea is shockingly dull when one considers the massive and bizarre effect such a change would have not just on Korean and Asian culture, but also on the world. There are a few glimmers of the underlying fascinating premise which are allowed to permeate to the surface: interesting Blade Runner-like architecture and visuals, an Asia which cooperates through its own iteration of the European Union's setup, and a Korea which is bogged down by the bureaucracy of the old-fashioned and disparate governments it has had to incorporate into its new unified body.
Sadly this world-building gets pushed to the background and left unexplored, and we never really understand why the Vietnamese and the Chinese are so glad for a cooperative Asia (Did they go democratic? Did unified Korea go communist?), or how the police department ended up so Kafkaesque that every phone call is prefaced by an advertisement and a jaunty hip-hop jingle.
Yesterday has its moments, but on the whole it's a shallow and muddled narrative with clichéd ideas. But here's the caveat: I'll be damned if it's not a fascinating view of a country in transition. To really "get" Korean cinema, I've learned, it's good to have at least a cursory understanding of South Korea's "democratic" history in the post-war era. The Korean mindset can be extremely insular and self-aware of history and politics, and almost all films or dramas set in the modern era or the future need some understanding of the past to "get" all of the things going on within - you need to understand fully just how despotic the leadership of the country was in the sixties and seventies and eighties, how strict censorship was, how turbulent and frequent violence and the disruption of ordinary life had become.
Korea is a country which existed in turmoil for almost three decades. Unlike Japan and its nuanced and well-oiled film industry, Korean filmmakers lacked a stable government body to back up their work, and as a result day-to-day pessimism overtook any real or qualitative efforts to explore ideas such as science-fiction, fantasy, and futurism. It is this tumultuous government which is the backbone of the film's mystery, and lacking that knowledge you might find yourself completely lost by the second act.
Yesterday is a film that really and truly represents that final breath of the old era of Korea's past. Looking at it in comparison with the later works of Chan-wook Park, for instance, you can see how quickly the industry has grown, and how rapidly Korean culture has modernized. I often say this to people who don't quite understand Korean pop culture, but it's important to remember that what the United States and Britain and Japan have managed to do in terms of industrialization, globalization, sexual revolution, and technological evolution since the early 1960's, South Korea has done in the small fraction of time since the late 1990's when their first truly stable government finally assumed power.
And this is the Korea we see hiding behind the thin tableau of "the future" as it's presented in Yesterday. A country is viewed at a crossroads. It's unsure of its place in the world, wary of government and the past, but also slightly afraid of the years to come and what they might bring. The movie is confused and disappointing and more than a bit boring on a basic storytelling level, but it gives us a (convoluted) look at the tense worries of a nation that doesn't realize that everything is about to change. It's a time capsule, and one I'd recommend to any person seriously interested in looking at modern Korean history.
Yunjin Kim, before Yesterday a one-dimensional player in saccharine dramas and inane films such as this, would grow to become a world star, finding success in the United States and globally for her role as the first prominent Korean actress on American television in the series Lost, as well as continuing a deep and nuanced film career in her native land. Her rise reflects a greater expansion of Korean culture around the world, and a change of fortunes for a nation that spent a century under the thumb of oppression and turmoil. What's so strange is that you wouldn't know any of this was about to happen judging by the bleak pessimism of Yesterday, but that's what makes the film so interesting: nobody saw it coming. That to me is quite cool.
I wouldn't tell anyone who likes good extreme cinema to watch this rather musty piece of amateurish futurism. The gun battles are a cheap rehash of things you've seen elsewhere, and the arresting visuals and Korean tendency to frame beautiful architecture and interesting imagery only partly makes up for the lacking story. But for anyone who wants to see, on an anthropological level, the rapid changes of our modern world as it moves progressively forward: I say give it a go. When paired against recent Korean cinema it's a fascinating study in contrasts, and a rare glimpse into the psyche of an evolving people, something well worth its bloated two hours, this bloated review, and a (hopefully bloated) bag of popcorn.
Snowblood Apple Rating for this film:
Anthropological Value: Priceless
Films In A Similar Style: Casshern, I suppose, but there are hints of Western influence as well along the lines of eighties-era Ridley Scott or David Cronenberg films.
please note: the actual paper does not have the Snowblood
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Wallpaper credit: Tyler Robbins, 2010
Snowblood Apple Filmographies
http://www.koreanfilm.org/kfilm02.html#yesterday - short review, synopsis and trailer, with an interesting insight into its relevance to Korean cinema at that time
http://www.beyondhollywood.com/yesterday-2002-movie-review/ - well-written review at Beyond Hollywood, echoing our thoughts on the movie pretty closely. Additional points for managing to work in the concept of Yesterday as being as exciting as "watching an Amish rock band" ;-)
http://blackholereviews.blogspot.com/2008/05/yesterday-2002-future-cop-action.html - short and succinct review
http://www.dvdverdict.com/reviews/yesterday.php - an excellent breakdown of pretty much all the good reasons you might not want to watch this movie