I remember when I was working on the subtitle for Three (2002) – a compilation of 3 short, equally-timed horror short films, I was quite surprised at the lack of dialogues of the “Memories” segment. It commands only 70 lines, stretched over 40 minutes, as opposed to dialogues that run up to some 400 lines in each of the other two segments.
And they can hardly be called dialogues at all, these brief verbal exchanges in Memories. Rather, they’re fragmented thoughts put into words to be uttered by psychologically disturbed and confused characters, notably the protagonists – the husband and wife of an upper-class family whose memories suddenly slip away. While most Kim Jee-woon’s fans would hail A Tale of Two Sisters, A Bittersweet Life or I Saw The Devil as the best of Kim’s works, for me it’s always Memories that demonstrates how competent, if not outright talented Kim is as a director. Visual images in each of the scenes in Memories speaks for themselves, so well that the need for dialogue is rendered almost nonexistent. Terror and unrelenting sadness are not what we are told of but what we feel viscerally, through bluish and greyish images and shifting frames, falling mutilated body parts, panicked steps and labored breaths, all adding up to frantic attempts of the husband and his wife to trace their way back to rememberings or, wait a minute, forgettings.
Consistent with Kim’s intentions in A Tale of Two Sisters, Memories is hardly a horror film but a family tragedy embellished by horror conventions. Gore and suspenseful moments speak not to uncanny supernatural forces but to how monstrous we are as a human race and how our violent dispositions, left unchecked, can easily shatter a happy family photo of three into dismembered body parts soon to be disposed.
The plot might be involved for the audiences at first, given how flashbacks entwine with the presence, and multiple narratives fuse together in non-linear manners. That being said, the ultimate story is short and simple, though not one easy to deal with. More like a state of mind than dramatic events that excite us, the struggle of the husband and wife to regain their lost memories clearly nails us to our seat for more horror and ultimately mournings to come. What happened before the wife’s gone missing, lost parts of her memory and frantic attempts to regain them are left largely unsaid. Still, we catch glimpses into that critical chapter, again through images, not words. Despite or probably because of its lack of dialogues, “Memories” is the only one in the compilation that leaves audience leaving the theater distraught, tensed, and forever questioning their innocence. As the wife’s rememberings eventually lapse into her husband’s willed forgettings, we find ourselves with a truth we hardly have the guts to face head on.
Probably the very first of Kim’s experiments with mood swings, plot twists, and family tragedy themes that sets himself on the path of success with “A Tale of Two Sisters” later on, “Memories” continues to haunt us even after we are released from its grip of horror, mournings, and lifetime regrets.
Praise should be accorded to the lead actor and actress in their renditions of arguably the finest performances of their acting careers. Jeong Bo-seok and Kim Hye-soo play a couple, but they’re rarely seen on screen together here. Their solo performances as loners wrestling with what to remember and what to forget are credible and chilling. Jeong’s calm and composed posture as he sets his mind to doing what he’s supposed to be doing makes our skin crawl. Playing up to that, Hye-soo’s heartbreaking portrayal of a woman who finds herself suddenly cut off from her normal life balances out the gore to point us to what the film is actually about: the eventual dismay and sadness of being human.
Perhaps the most overlooked of Kim’s works due to its status as a short film, “Memories” is Kim’s story-telling at its best, at least in my opinion. For those who seek more in less, Memories is clearly what you should be looking for.