Seoul, 2020. Korea has seen the unification of the North and South divide and now the threat of human genome genetics is causing much concern as scientists involved in these experiments are being killed off one by one.
Hardened cop, Suk (Kim Seung-woo) and his partner May (Kim Seon-ah) along with their team are sent to investigate the murders. When her father is abducted by a terrorist, police profiler Hee-su (Kim Yun-jin) joins the team. They discover that a man going by the name of Goliath (Choi Min-su) is behind the deaths but his motivations are unclear as he makes no demands. As the hunt continues, Suk and Hee-su learn more about each other and their past which is somehow connected to all this.
In the last 2 years, Korea has seen a number of action films emerge (2009: Lost Memories and Resurrection of the Little Match Girl to name but a couple), trying to emulate the style of western blockbusters, each and every time failing to do so. 2002 saw Yesterday which also crashed and burned at the South Korean box office. So the question is - "why does this happen"?
Well I think the main problem is that directors' who tackle these action movies get caught up in trying to tell convoluted stories around what is at heart just another conventional action movie. It's not that the storylines are incredibly confusing but rather the time isn't spent in telling them properly.
I find they come into their own little category of movies trying to be intellectual, not getting away with it and thus falling into a trap where action is the only thing they have left to rely on. Like so many Hollywood action movies, this wouldn't be so bad if the set pieces were well staged, which of course brings me to my second theory of why they bomb so badly - People can go and watch better than average Hollywood blockbusters, so why bother with awful Korean ones?
Director, Jeong Yun-su makes his debut here and obviously has no idea how to construct a decent action/thriller. Like the films previously mentioned, he seems to think that a shaky cam can jazz up a scene. Now I'm not a huge fan of gunplay to begin with, largely because - John Woo directed movies aside - it's rarely done well and static, sub-machine gun takes, choppily edited to a constantly shaky, hand held camera is more dizzying than electrifying. Worse still this method isn't restricted to action scenes, with some of the more dialogue heavy sequences using the formula, distracting you from the unfolding storyline.
There are a few hand to hand combat scenes and these are also very poor. You can forgive the actors for not having screen fighting skills but even the worst actor can be made to look good if the scenes are shot and edited well. Instead we get extreme close ups and a lot of quick cuts, making the punch ups look messy and visually inept.
The obligatory car chases are also present but someone needs to tell Yun-su that drawn out close ups of car bonnets do not make for exhilarating chases. It's totally understandable as to why these films bomb so badly and unless someone makes more of an effort then I fear the trend will continue for years to come. In my eye only two films have managed to offer exciting action set pieces - Nowhere to Hide and No Blood, No Tears, both made on considerably smaller budgets but filled with far more passion and flare.
So the action doesn't make up for the plot in any way. Yesterday is riddled with the usual cops and robbers’ clichés, believe me, you really have seen it all before. It starts out quite confusing because there's no real structure. The film hastily jumps about, throwing all kinds of scientific babble at the viewer and doesn't manage to make much sense or even try to. The problem is that we are told of genetics but not how they really affect the person in question. We know that Goliath is genetically enhanced but when the opportunity arises for Hee-su to explain exactly what it is that makes him different, we are denied such knowledge as if the writer had no clue what he was talking about in the first place.
Also worthy of mention is that Korea is now united but it's not really delved into as deeply as we might like it to be. I just wonder if Korea will be like this in a little over 15 years time or if it'll always be a dream to put into films. As the end draws near, the more tedious it all becomes as we all know by the last 30 minutes what will happen, bringing us to a lazy finale.
Also masking the vague storyline is the films visuals. The trailers make the film look more visually stunning than it actually is because when you sit down to watch it there's really not that much to see. I'm not sure if Korea will look like it does in this film by 2020 although parts of it are a possibility. As soon as you see the dark, wet, neon streets you immediately think of Blade Runner - the film that set the trend and painted a realistic future setting. Yesterday doesn't go for the flying cars or robots, just a few more skyscrapers in a world where advertising has taken over everything, even right down to paying for the Police force's phone bill as we see in one scene where Suk gets a message on his communicator from his boss, accompanied by a short advert.
For some reason there is a need to show digitally created skyscrapers in almost every background shot. I don't know if this is a budget thing or not, trying to milk what effect shots they have but it does eventually become boring to see, along with the floating mechanical advertisement boards that are made all the more noticeable when you see the behind the scenes effects work, which predominantly focuses on this. Finally, some of the shots just are not convincing enough. To me if it was to work better as a whole then all the shots need to look good but some of the budget seems to have disappeared elsewhere.
Again, the film loses our interest and just takes away all hope of this being anything special, which now leaves us with just the characters themselves.
Forget about any kind of deep character development -the opportunities are there but they're quickly dashed in favour of meandering chase scenes. Suk initially seems interesting; he's a person who suffers from headaches resulting from his past as does Hee-su but little goes into explaining more about these people. All we really get to know is why they're involved for the purpose of moving the story along which literally is along the lines of "Well you have a mysterious past but we can't be bothered to go into more detail, so there". The rest of the support characters have no history whatsoever which might also explain everyone’s moody and depressed approach.
I don't think I can recall a film recently where all the actors were so un-charismatic. Kim Seung-woo and Co just look like they really don't want to be there. They seem to have no passion for what they're doing. Their sullen faces make this emotionally devoid and even seeing them work behind the scenes is like seeing a tortured cast, roped into a film that they perhaps know is going to turn out badly. It's a shame because three of these actors I have high regard for and I know that they're capable of much more. Kim Seung-woo has been in the business for a long time so it's pretty clear that his talents are wasted and I think he knows it. He has nothing but generally poor dialogue which is of little interest and seems lost in his role.
Choi Min-su is a great actor also and is extremely wasted as Goliath, a role which is simply beneath his talent. We don't get to see him until the second half of the film and when we do he looks imposing but has nothing to work with. His lines are dull and he's just another typical bad guy doing what he does for his own personal beliefs. I had hoped that Choi would have put more into this character though I highly doubt he was given much opportunity to do so.
Kim Yun-jin is an actress whom many will know from Shiri. She's a very accomplished performer but like her co-stars has been dealt a character who isn't very involving. Kim speaks perfect English and is given the chance to do so here, but the scene in which she does is marred on occasion by the rest of the Korean speakers in a poorly executed conference, and because of this some of her words are almost impossible to hear as she explains about cloning. On top of that she permanently looks depressed. I'm not going to judge her too harshly because although she is a beautiful woman Kim has a persistent haunted look that just comes down to her natural appearance.
Kim Seon-ah is given little to do but look good in tight clothing, though from what I've seen she appears to have been hard work for the director. I didn't particularly find her a worthwhile addition to the cast, the remainder of which just have fleeting moments not giving us much else to go on.
Presented in 1.85:1 anamorphic widescreen the film looks decent, although could have been better. At times the black levels don't seem strong enough and there's some evident grain. As for the generated English subtitles, these have more mistakes than usually seen and early into the film when we're introduced to Hee-su there is voiceover dialogue that isn't translated at all.
DTS, 2.0 and 5.1 tracks are available as well as a commentary. All of them seem to do a good job technically but cannot improve a bad film.
Note - There are no subtitles.
Bonus features found on the second disc include cast and crew interviews, outtakes which mostly focus on Kim Seon-ah screwing up scenes, a short interview with the art department, deleted scenes (with director’s comments), before and after CG sequences and a featurette with the actors titled Supporting Actors Behind Story.
Korean production notes, costume sketches, trailers and a still gallery are also present.
Yesterday is just another in a line of increasingly poor action films of late to come out of South Korea. A lot is to be learned if we're to ever see an enjoyable film of this genre in the future and I still maintain that a large majority of Korean directors don't have what it takes, while those that do either aren't getting the offers or are simply not interested.
Failing to even achieve popcorn entertainment status I found myself bored within 35 minutes and at two hours in length, Yesterday is 1 hour 25 minutes too long. You just can't find the staff these days...