Do you like Back to the Future? How about The Notebook? Well, this is neither of those movies.
It used to be legally available to stream, but now it is…uh…on the internet. Approximately 112 minutes.
Na-Young has secured a free trip to New Zealand. And it could not come soon enough. An acquaintance of her father has just died and somehow left her father with his debt. Her mother crashed the funeral ceremony and caused a major scene. As a result of all of this, Na-Young will still have to continue holding off going to college.
Na-Young has pretty much had it with her parents. Her father, Jin-Kook, works in the mailroom in the office where she works, but seems to have just mentally and emotionally shut down. Her mother, Yeon-Soon, works in a women’s bath house and is just embarrassing with her overbearing and crude behavior. Her behavior may be fine on the little island community where she and Jin-Kook grew up, but not in the big city. Neither of them seem happy and their marriage looks to be on the rocks. Na-Young scoffs when her boyfriend looks through an old photo album and states that her mother used to look a whole lot like her. She looks nothing like that smiling girl in those pictures.
Not long before Na-Young is scheduled to leave, Jin-Kook abruptly quits his job and disappears. It is probable that he is sick and has been suffering from depression for a while. Yeon-Soon’s younger brother, Do-Hyeon, tells Na-Young that he is sure that Jin-Kook went back to the island. Yeon-Soon seems content to just leave him there to die and Na-Young has given up on both of them. When her boyfriend, who grew up an orphan, says that she should go easy on her parents, she goes off on him, saying that she has no good memories of them and envies his having grown up without parents. She is ready to leave all of this.
When Na-Young gets on the plane and seems to head off to New Zealand, she suddenly finds herself on a boat, telling herself that the vacation can wait. She is actually heading for the island where her parents and uncle grew up. She really is looking for her father. Na-Young finds the house where he and and Yeon-Soon used to live and finds…her mother. But she is young, Na-Young’s age, if not younger. Na-Young is understandably confused and attempts to leave. Unfortunately, she gets caught up in a rainstorm and winds up back at the house. Not knowing who Na-Young is and completely oblivious of how much they look alike, Yeon-Soon lets her stick around indefinitely.
Yeon-Soon works as a diver, swimming through the water for food. An orphan, she uses the money to pay for her younger brother’s schooling. Do-Hyeon, a little twerp, does not seem to appreciate it all that much. He also does not really care about the deal where she pays him to write her a letter from school each day, knowing full well that she herself cannot read or write. This is all a ploy so that Yeon-Soon has an excuse to interact with the postman, who is, of course, Jin-Kook.
Aside from the general confusion over having apparently traveled back in time, Na-Young is shocked at how different her parents-to-be are from the ones whom she had known while growing up. Yeon-Soon possesses the scrappy and shameless resourcefulness and maybe the desperate need to believe that she is more clever than she is, but she has none of the cutthroat cynicism or mean-spiritedness of her older self. If anything, she is a utterly innocent and naïve. Jin-Kook is a nice man who works with mail, but here he seems more confident and in possession of all the answers. Most importantly, Yeon-Soon is head over heels in love with him, even if she is too shy to admit it. What could have happened?
For the next few days, Na-Young stays with her future mother and uncle as she observes their lives on the island and early stages of the courtship of her parents. And…that is basically the movie.
The presentation of this movie is a little bizarre. The time travel aspect is never explained either to the audience or to Na-Young. Is it real? Is it a dream? Is it merely metaphorical? Even more strangely, Na-Young does not really affect the past very much. She just shows up, befriends Yeon-Soon, occasionally talks with other people, and then just watches people. I suppose that she does help Yeon-Soon a little at certain points, but it seems that someone else could have helped her had Na-Young not been there. Maybe because Na-Young does not actually understand what is going on, she tries to avoid making huge changes to the past. Thus, even when she offhandedly makes a throwaway comment about why someone like Jin-Kook being a nice person makes things even more difficult, she shrugs it off when Yeon-Soon asks her to elaborate. She barely talks to her future father, let alone warn him about how he will no longer be a big fish in a small pond when he moves to the mainland. In fact, there are long stretches where Na-Young is not even on screen, with the story focusing more on her future parents. One could possibly argue that the time travel framing was just a way to pad out what was a rather standard love story. I would disagree.
To me, there are two possible reasons for the time travel aspect. The first is the rather obvious lesson to respect one’s parents. Na-Young starts out hating her parents for not having any positive memories about them. Now, she sees how they lived when they were her age and learns to appreciate how they stayed happy even as they struggled to make it through. This is not a flashback, she is in there directly. At the same time, she cannot be so arrogant as to impose herself onto the past. Hence, she becomes a passive character to the point of occasional nonexistence, merely witnessing everything. This is perhaps the Confucian family-centric take on the movie. It is fine, though I find the other possible reason more interesting.
Since Na-Young’s impact on the past is negligible at most, it means that the future is set. This storybook romance between Yeon-Soon and Jin-Kook is destined to fall apart, Yeon-Soon is destined to grow harsh and Jin-Kook is going to turn into a broken man. Since this story is not being told through either of them, there is no effort to connect the dots between the past and present beyond mild hints. It is implied that Na-Young does not know what happened either. So it is up to the viewer to speculate what happened. Was it a big event? Was it a series of events? Was it simply the slow and sad march of time? Was it the difficulty of raising Na-Young? Was it the pregnancy itself that created a rift? Did it cause a scandal that forced them to move to the mainland and into a big city where they could be anonymous? That the movie gives no set answers makes the happy innocence of their romance seem that much sadder. There is nothing there that the viewer can point to say that that is where things went wrong and that things would be different if only they did things differently. Well, there is maybe one thing, but it is not certain that that was a reason.
Of course, there is a third possible reason for the time travel framing. It was the easiest way to have the lead actress play a dual role as daughter and young mother. Na-Young is reserved and tightly wound, keeping her negative feelings inside until she explodes in rage or despair. Yeon-Soon is bright and bubbly, unafraid and willing to take risks, though not necessarily without shame. The movie puts a bit of makeup to make young Yeon-Soon look more tanned than Na-Young, but that is about it. The rest of it is the performance: with Na-Young as the breaking heart of a family drama and Yeon-Soon as the hilarious center of a romantic comedy. Additionally, this makes it possible to have her be the lead even when the focus switches from one character to another.
If you are not the type to get too hung up on the mechanics of a story, or to take the title literally, you can enjoy this movie on multiple levels. More than the sum of its parts, this movie is quite the little treat.
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Free on Netflix.
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