In the last few years, a new film genre has been steadily currying favor among South Korean moviegoers, blending the traditional staple of melodrama (no stranger to cinema on the peninsula) with some science fiction or fantasy time-travel elements that unite two lovers separated by time. 1996 saw the first entry into this 'love across time' genre with "Shiri" director Jacky Kang's "The Gingko Bed (Eunhaengnamoo chimdae)", where an antique bed reunites a man in present-day Korea with his long-lost love in a previous life. Since then, the genre has grown to include a number of memorable films, including 1999's "Calla" (a businessman gets a second chance to save the life of a flower girl he has fallen in love with), "Il Mare" (a magic mailbox brings together two people living two years apart) and "Peppermint Candy (Bakha sating)" ("Forrest Gump" meets "Memento" as a man travels back in time through the events that have unraveled his life) from 2000, and "Failan (Pairan)" (a low-level thug finds dignity in the letters written by his deceased wife whom he never knew) from 2001.
One of the more popular entries in the genre is Kim Jeong-kweon's "Ditto (Donggam)", which appeared in Korean movie houses four months prior to the release of "Il Mare" and racked up an impressive one million admissions in 2000. The story revolves around the relationship that develops between two college students, So-eun (the lovely Kim Ha-neul) and In (Yoo Ji-tae of "Attack the Gas Station!"), who connect via a ham radio one night. However, when they decide to meet on campus and miss each other, it is revealed that they are separated by 21 years, with So-eun in 1979 and In living in the present day, 2000. Eventually, they become comfortable with the supernatural phenomenon that has brought them together, as well as their correspondence. She relates her camaraderie with her best friend Seon-mi (Kim Min-ju) and her pining for fellow student Dong-heui (Park Yong-woo), while he talks about the unwanted attention he receives from fellow co-ed (Ha Ji-weon). However, as the on-air relationship deepens, it is revealed that their ties go far deeper than ever imagined.
True, the plot of "Ditto" is eerily similar to a Hollywood production released that same year, "Frequency", in which a young man is able to communicate with his late firefighter father through a ham radio. However, there is a difference between the two films with respect to intent. Whereas "Frequency" was more-or-less a sci-fi suspense-thriller, "Ditto" ends up being a bittersweet drama that offers up some interesting perspectives on the national psyche of South Korea.
To appreciate the significance of the two timelines in "Ditto", 1979 and 2000, one needs to be familiar with the history of South Korea, a relatively young democracy with a turbulent past. Though the country was established as a democratic republic in the aftermath of the Second World War, the disruption of the Korean War, sluggish economic growth, and paranoia over the growing influence of pro-North leftist groups created an environment of instability, which eventually led to a military coup during the Sixties. For the next three decades, the successive governments of Park Chung-hee and Chun Doo-hwan maintained a tight grip on the country through various means such as declaring martial law, using the Korean Central Intelligence Agency (KCIA) to spy on and harass political opponents, violently suppressing anti-government demonstrators, and manipulation of the country's constitution.
Faced with increasing opposition and mass demonstrations in 1987, President Chun finally delivered several democratic reforms, including a new constitution and open elections. Though the following decade would bring South Korea renewed economic growth and membership in the United Nations, the young democracy would still be rocked by numerous challenges. Government corruption figured prominently, as the 'old ways' came under greater scrutiny in the nascent democracy, which included the arrest of former Presidents Chun and Roh Tae-woo for their roles in the 1980 Kwangju Massacre (an event that plays a prominent role in "Peppermint Candy") and allegations of bribery against President Kim Young-sam, who had himself spearheaded an anti-corruption campaign in the early Nineties. And then in 1997, the Asian economic crisis hit the debt-ridden South Korean economy, which resulted in a rapid depreciation of the country's currency and a bailout by the International Monetary Fund. It would not be until 2000 that some semblance of stability would return to the peninsula, as National Assembly elections brought veteran opposition leader and pro-democracy advocate Kim Dae-jung to power. At long last, democracy in South Korea had come of age.
Given that the South Korean people made the painful transition from one political extreme to the other in the span of a single generation, it is not surprising that the country's filmmakers have been influenced by such upheaval. Underlying the 'love across time' genre is the dichotomy between the lessons of the past and the understanding of the present, not unlike the themes addressed in the films of Wong Kar-wai ("In the Mood for Love"). All the characters in the genre's films struggle with trying to make sense of events in their past, often catastrophic, and using that knowledge to better understand themselves and their current circumstances. And like the growing pains experienced by South Korea over the last four decades, there is a realization that the trauma of past experience shapes and becomes an integral part of the individual (or a nation), wherein lies its acceptance. This perspective is readily demonstrated in the films of the genre, such as with Eun-joo (Jun Ji-hyun) making sense of a broken relationship in "Il Mare", the disintegration of Yongho (Sol Kyung-gu) in "Peppermint Candy", and the dignity and comfort that Kang-jae (Choi Min-shik) finds in the letters from his late wife in "Failan".
In the case of "Ditto", screenwriter Jang Jin (who also wrote the Korean political satire "The Spy") anchors the young and naïve So-eun in the month of October of 1979, a period of major political upheaval that was triggered by the assassination of Park on the 25th of that month. On the other hand, In is a child of the Internet era, who perhaps takes the relative stability of modern South Korea for granted. As the story develops, Chang makes it very clear in one of the film's genuine 'gee-whiz' moments that the destinies of these two protagonists are irrevocably intertwined, with the decisions made and actions taken by So-eun having significant implications for In, not unlike how South Korea's political strife during the Sixties and Seventies helped set the stage for reform during the Eighties and Nineties. Unfortunately, like much of the 'lost generation' of Koreans during the Park and Chun regimes, So-eun ends up becoming a casualty of history, which is eloquently conveyed in the film's sad coda in the present day.
Technically speaking, director Kim Jung-kueon has crafted "Ditto" with some top-notch production values. Kim makes good use of some stunning cinematography to contrast the two eras, such as the missed meeting at the clock tower, which has So-eun under sunny skies and In soaked by a downpour. The film's judiciously chosen soundtrack also highlights the differences between the two time periods, and heightens the sense of bittersweet remorse that dominates the film's ending. Coupled with a strong performance by Kim Ha-neul, who capably demonstrates So-euns emotional maturation against the film's historical backdrop, "Ditto" is in the league of "Il Mare" and "Peppermint Candy" as a shining example of the genre.
With the growing prominence of Korean films on the world stage, it is not surprising to see that the 'love across time' genre has crossed over into other markets, such as with the 2001 release of "Second Time Around", essentially a Hong Kong take on the genre starring Ekin Cheng ("Legend of Zu") and Cecilia Cheung (who also starred in "Failan"). However, whereas "Second Time Around" is purely aimed at cashing in on a growing cinematic phenomenon, "Ditto", along with the other films of the Korean 'love across time' genre, is a thoughtful reflection of the national psyche of South Korea, a country that has matured into a functioning democracy in a relatively short time, yet still bears the scars of that long and difficult struggle.
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