Here we have one of the most uncompelling movies in recent memory, wrapped up in a visual style that's needlessly confusing and weighted down with performances that have all the flavor of a loaf of unbaked bread. Yesterday is not the worst of many recent Korean SF flop-busters — the all-time loser in that regard is the lamentable Resurrection of the Little Match Girl — but it's quite a tiresome mess unto itself. It’s so excruciatingly uninvolving that it took three separate sittings for me to watch the whole thing, making a two-hour movie feel like four.
Yesterday is like one of those Movie-By-Numbers jobs, where the ingredients are all there but the flair of the chef is missing. It contains a great many things — serial killers, genetic experiments, futuristic police work — but they all just sort of sit there. They never gel into a reason to keep watching. Plus, there's a fight or chase every ten minutes just to keep the audience awake — the sort of thing that in a better movie would work as punctuation but here is more like stammering.
Yesterday is set a few decades in the future in a united Korea where a serial killer appears to be taking out scientists one by one. The main cop on the case is Seok (Seung-woo Kim), who tried to rescue his own son from kidnappers a year ago. The kid took a bullet intended for someone else, slid into a coma, and has since been cryogenically frozen. Seok believes that his son can be reborn someday through cloning, holding out hope for this even after his wife abandons him. When he’s not wielding a gun, Seok spends most of the movie standing around looking morosely at something out of camera range.
The other major character is Hui-su (played by the lovely Yoon-jin Kim, who embodied the secret of Shiri), the daughter of a police captain. She's a criminologist interested in using genetics as a way of pre-empting violent serial crime, but one day after a lecture (in English, no less) her father is kidnapped by a gang of gun-toting baddies and held for ransom. Seok isn't convinced that the ransom is legit, however, and begins to dig deeper, uncovering a web of hidden police files, clandestine experiments, and a whole plethora of other things that only get murkier (and less compelling) as we go further into the film.
At least the movie, like so many other Korean SF movies, looks terrific. The cityscape is ablaze with neon and projected signs, all crumbling away from underneath. When the cops plunge into a dangerous and seedy part of town to get information, it's genuinely dangerous and seedy. The cops also have tons of miniaturized equipment, like the combination business card / police badge / cellphone / Blackberry gizmo that they wear on lanyards around their necks (although I idly wondered whether or not a good yank by a passing thug would deter them from doing that anymore).
Yesterday’s biggest problem is its people, who never become more than mouthpieces for boring exchanges of dialogue. Seok is a cold fish, and Hui-su spends most of her time standing around looking worried and spouting off pseudopsychological gibberish about serial killers. The rest of the cast are an indistinguishable pudding of hairstyles, technical expertises, and gun fetishes — save possibly Seok's female partner, a tough-as-nails girl with a rose tattoo on her cheekbone and more attitude than everyone else in the film combined.
Because we never get to really know anyone, the movie just winds up marking time with one scene after another. You'd think that a movie with a fair chunk of its running time taken up with gunplay, fight scenes, and chase scenes of one kind or another would be at least passably entertaining. The problem, as I've mentioned, is that all of this is completely abstract. It's not plugged into anything, least of all the audience’s ability to care. The SF trappings of the film only serve to move everything further away and make it seem that much more distant and boring.
How do movies like this get made? Someone thought it was worth the cash, I guess. Yesterday clearly cost a ton of money, even by relatively modest Korean standards. And yet they managed to go forward with this production without ever having a script that even managed to make sense from moment to moment. Swimming around in this film are a great many ideas — cloning, criminology, genetics-as-destiny, the pathology of serial murder, etc. — that never do more than, well, swim around and move lamely in and out of focus.
Korea's film industry is still young and fresh, and perhaps for them to grind out more than a few duds is not only inevitable but necessary. They'll put out dull, expensive mistakes like Yesterday, learn from them, and move on. Perhaps then I won't have to sit through quite as many of them for so little payoff.