Memories (Kim Jee-woon, S Korea, 2002)


In a time-lapse
Kim Jee-Woon’s Memories (Three, 2002)

Kim Jee-Woon’s Memories—a 40 minute short about a separated husband and wife’s attempts to rediscover themselves in the aftermath of a traumatic incident—is the opening installment of Three (aka., Three ... Extremes 2), a horror movie anthology which includes shorts from Thai director Nonzee Nimibutr (“The Wheel”) and Hong Kong director Peter Chan (“Going Home”). Kim’s film fades up on a sleeping man, actor

Jeong Bo-seok, known here only as the “Husband”. The apartment windows are closed, the blinds are drawn, yet the sounds of city life filter through, the expansion of modern Korean society invading every home. The Husband awakens with a start, and Kim Jee-woon’s camera slowly, painstakingly, creeps across the room—too remote to be a subjective eye, it finds firstly a child’s doll, a balloon swinging perpetually in motion, then an open ziplock bag. Kneeling just beside it, a sobbing woman, faceless in the dark, rocks back and forth. She feels his gaze; suddenly in this cold room, the man and woman are aware of each other.

This introductory scene is emblematic of the sophistication at work in Memories, a film about uncertainty, desire, guilt, and memory. Its format recalls that of David Lynch’s Lost Highway (France/USA, 1997) or more clearly Mulholland Drive (France/USA, 2001), but in visual terms it is closer in kind to Miike Takashi’s brilliant Audition (1999). In the second half of his film, Miike employs kaleidoscopic photography, neo-noir lighting and jump-cut editing to destabilise our experience as spectators, but his
approach beforehand emphasises a realist style consisting generally of long takes, conventional camera angles and lighting, and continuity editing. This order of representation is in no way unfamiliar, yet our anxiety grows, for everything in the film indicates that we have entered a bleak fantasy. Audition shocks us, ultimately, with imagery, but Memories does not. Kim establishes a world in which commonplace household objects, setting and environment are made irregular and imposing by his selection of camera lenses and carefully placed shadows. With this method Kim emulates a sort of Kubrickian formalism, generating a desire in the viewer to see more within and beyond the clear boundaries of the frame.

Kim establishes a world in which commonplace household objects, setting and environment are made irregular and imposing by his selection of camera lenses and carefully placed shadows

A credits sequence establishes that the Husband is an amnesiac. As the camera discovers the unconscious body of a young woman dressed all in white, a voice-over indicates that the Husband’s wife may be in danger and that her disappearance triggered his amnesia. After he returns home to New Town, Kim shows the “Wife” (played by actress Kim Hye-soo) in a brightly lit daylight scene regaining consciousness in a series of static shots, each fading to black. As she takes in her surroundings it becomes clear that actions are no longer immediate or immanent, life is truncated, edited, film-like. Kim underlines this in his use of jump-cuts. As we see the Wife in close-up a cyclist appears in the middle distance. We see a shot of her turning, a jump-cut brings the cyclist closer, and then a wide shot positioned in the centre of the street shows the cyclist already leaving frame. The shot of the Wife looking into camera—startled by this sudden appearance—indicates that time is fractured for her: there is no continuity between the cyclist appearing in her peripheral vision and, in the next instant, leaving frame.

The Wife awakens, not knowing who she is or even where

In his 2006 book Filmosophy Daniel Frampton encourages us to see film, its events and actions, conceptually rather than industrially or economically. In coining the term “filmind” he argues that cinema is a medium that thinks for itself and ultimately authors itself: “Filmosophy conceptualises film as an organic intelligence, a ‘film being’ thinking about the characters and subjects in the film”. Each film therefore presents a unique world “with its own intentions and creativities”, authored not necessarily by directors, screenwriters or other authors, but authored by itself, a unique form of consciousness then, playing out in real-time.

Memories wrestles with memory from two diametrically opposed perspectives: 1) the husband for whom the "appearance" of memory—the infiltration of memory into his everyday life—gives expression to feelings of remorse, malevolence and alienation; and 2) the wife, whose ongoing exploration of the wasteland sprawl of New Town is often melancholic and increasingly anachronistic. Kim’s thoughtful cutting technique, which he deploys only in scenes involving the wife, creates a rhythm and motion that’s (usefully) at odds with the husband’s recognition of events, which is slow and contemplative, sometimes microscopically acute. Absent this differentiation, the film would become a sort of insensible cinematic installation.

It’s an eerily naturalistic representation of human memory. These early scenes present a vision of memory that is raw and intentionally disorienting, but which I find fascinatingly ambiguous and accurate. I tend not to remember a conversation in linear flow, for instance, but instead I recall a series of questions asked (the strength of my interest and motivation for each might privilege the memory of asking one question before another in the conversation), a phrase or sentence she used in response, a flirtatious grin, say, which I attribute more meaning to than the hand which drops to touch mine. But this is the problem we encounter: in remembering we prioritise, in the process becoming our own director. Kim complicates things by realising "live" reality as one would a memory, making time surprisingly malleable, making the changing world in his characters’ vision something which is just beyond their full comprehension. Memory seems to be occurring and operating outside of the mind.

But the film does not limit its action systematically to the experiences of its two leads. It follows the gestures of incidental characters in a coffee shop, it adapts itself to the movement of others when they're in the husband's home (even following, and thinking investigatively, Hyun-joo, the wife's sister, as she explores the bedroom for clues of spousal abuse), and it victimises the wife even from the ambiguous position of the taxi driver, at one point motivating the camera to pass over the hood of the car as it tears through the streets of New Town and menace the wife in the back seat where the camera comes to hover.

That’s Memories in a nutshell—it cannot really be said that it has a singular way of thinking, a singular philosophy, because it thinks through camera, action and editing from multiple and contradictory perspectives. If we want to speak of a singular film intelligence, the filmind, then we can only realistically comprehend an intelligence that thinks, emotes, intends and depicts in quite radically diverse ways. In this sense, Memories is a playful thinker because it shows us how much it knows about us, and it maps our psychological life from multiple perspectives. Thus raising the question: to whom do all these memories belong? The film, or its characters? The wife spends most of her time chasing the memory of her daughter through the grim landscape of New Town, but just as she "believes" (to draw on Frampton’s vocabulary) in the authenticity of the memory, so too does the aware, thinking, feeling film. It is chasing clues in the memories it itself recalls.

That’s quite a fantastic proposition—one that is difficult to believe in, but also quite wonderful enough to want to believe in.

2 November, 2007


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