“Traces of Love” is the latest work from Kim Dae Seung, arguably one of the more interesting directors working in modern Korean cinema, who was previously responsible for the unconventional “Bungee Jumping of Their Own” and the gritty thriller “Blood Rain”. With this, his third film, Kim again takes a rather generic form, that of the chronologically shifting love story, recently popularised in the likes of “Ditto” and “Il Mare”, and transforms it into something far more rewarding, exploring loss and the hope of rebirth in a poetic and engrossing fashion which eschews the obvious tugs at viewers’ heart strings upon which similar efforts have been so reliant.
The film begins in 1995 with newly qualified attorney Hyun Woo (popular actor Yoo Ji Tae, best known for his role in Park Chan-wook’s classic “Oldboy”) and his fianc’e Min Joo (Kim Ji Soo, also in “Romance and This Charming Girl”) happily in love and about to move into their first apartment together. Unfortunately, tragedy strikes as Min Joo is caught up in the horrific collapse of a shopping mall (a real life incident which claimed the lives of over five hundred people and injured more than a thousand), leaving Hyun Woo alone and lost in the world.
Ten years later, Hyun Woo is still unable to get on with his life, when he receives a package containing a travel diary written by his lost love which describes a series of places she had hoped they would visit together. After trouble at his work leads to an enforced holiday, he decides to follow the path laid out in the book, only to repeatedly encounter Se Jin (actress Uhm Ji Won of “Tale of Cinema” and “Running Wild”), a strange young woman who seems to have a connection with Min Joo.
Although the plot may sound like a recipe for the kind of bittersweet tearjerker so often favoured by Korean directors, “Traces of Love” is actually a far more complicated and subtle film. Taking a national tragedy and drawing from it a very intimate and personal story, Kim focuses on themes of acceptance and closure rather than romance, and thankfully avoids any of the emotional cheap shots which might have been expected, with very little of the running time being devoted to the usual angst-wallowing and shots of characters staring mournfully into the rain kept mercifully to a minimum.
The film is quietly poignant without ever being too sentimental, and this makes the proceedings feel both natural and believable, and as such it works well as a moving journey of healing and renewal. By working in themes of corruption and social injustice, Kim adds further dramatic depth in a way which compliments the central tale and which helps to keep things interesting by referencing the changes which time has wrought not only on the characters, but the country as a whole.
Anchoring the film and providing it with a solid sympathetic core are the three central characters, all of whom are well written, with Kim dedicating most of the film to their gradual development. This does mean that the pace is fairly slow and meandering, though never dull and with a considerable emotional return during the later stages, when secrets are revealed and life-changing decisions are made. The acting is of a uniformly high standard, with Yoo Ji Tae in particular turning in a great performance as the tortured Hyun Woo, bringing to the role a touch of genuine sorrow whilst managing to avoid looking like a kicked puppy too much of the time.
Arguably the film’s greatest strength is Kim’s direction, which is excellent throughout, whether during the spectacular chaos of the accident and the sadness of its aftermath or the beautiful scenery of the characters’ later journey. The influence of Korean master Im Kwon Taek (with whom Kim previously worked as an assistant director on the likes of “Sopyonje” and “The Taebaek Mountains”) is certainly apparent, and he shows the same kind of open, unhurried approach and similar use of symbolism, here involving the changing seasons in all their glory as a reflection of the never-ending cycle of life. This is nicely underscored by the way in which the film moves around chronologically, with Min Joo and Hyun Woo’s past and present journeys unfolding in parallel.
“Traces of Love’s” approach works far better than the awkward time travel gimmicks employed in the likes of “Il Mare”, and allows the film to move towards a kind of spiritual convergence which is both satisfying and believable. Certainly, “Traces of Love” is a far more mature, thoughtful and indeed heartfelt effort than others in the genre, and one which should appeal to viewers who would normally steer clear of such overtly emotional dramas, being both a technically accomplished and truly engaging film.
Dae-seung Kim (director) / Min-seok Jang (screenplay)
CAST: Eun-mi Bang
Ji-su Kim … Min-joo
Ji-won Uhm … Se-jin
Ji-tae Yu … Hyun-woo