Setting aside the barnstorming success of Bong Joon-ho's new feature Snowpiercer, an anomaly if ever there was one, Korean cinema's relationship to the science fiction genre has been a difficult one over the years.
Successful mash-ups like Save the Green Planet (2003) and The Host (2006) hinted at what the industry might achieve, but by and large, the straight sci-fis that have been produced, such as 2009: Lost Memories (2002), Yesterday (2002) and Natural City (2003), have failed to impress. However, 11:00 AM, a new Korean sci-fi film that made its way into local theaters late this year, held the faintest glimmer of hope for what can, at times, be one of cinema's most rewarding genres. Alas, this new effort follows previous domestic stabs that fail to grasp what makes the genre work in the first place.
A crack team of researchers work in a secret underwater laboratory that appears to be located around the Great Blue Hole, a huge sinkhole off the coast of Belize. A large Russian corporation is backing the scientists, who are on the cusp of developing a time machine. In order to secure more funds, head researcher Woo-seok (Jung Jae-young) goes on a test run with Young-eun (Kim Ok-vin). They succeed in transporting themselves to 11 AM the next day, but what they find is a laboratory in flames and littered with the corpses of their co-workers. Woo-seok goes back to the present and thus begins a race against the clock to prevent what may or may not be their inevitable future.
Part sci-fi thriller and part psychological chamber piece, 11:00 AM has a snappy premise that sadly doesn't go anywhere but in circles. In a confined space and with the weight of enormous, world-altering decisions on their shoulders, naturally our protagonists go a little cabin crazy when faced with an impending disaster. It doesn't take long for them to get at each other's throats, but this transition is routine in execution and never explores the desperate or philosophical depths that have marked more successful examples of the genre, such as Solaris (1972), Event Horizon (1997), Sunshine (2007), or Moon (2009).
As Darcy Paquet noted (in his column for Daum) earlier this year, Korean filmmakers have largely neglected to treat science fiction as a "genre of ideas" and, true to form, 11:00 AM shares more in common with K-horror than sci-fi. Instead of ghosts, characters here are faced with future versions of themselves. The way and order in which characters are dispatched, as well as the psychological trauma lurking in some of the protagonist's backstories, are also in keeping with the horror genre. Mind you, that last point is also applicable to a great swath of Korean cinema.
On its surface, 11:00 AM is a time machine film, but in this crucial department it fails rather badly. In fact, the way time travel is used in the narrative's structure early on does it a great disservice by giving away too much of the plot right off the bat. A clever sci-fi story might get around this by playing with the malleable time travel premise, but here it is more or less abandoned in favor of the characters' wearisome mental deterioration. As such, by the film's end, save for a cookie-cutter dramatic coda, we wind up right back where we started, with little to show for the interceding 80 or so minutes. Rather than explore any novel sci-fi ideas or even inject some fun into a story, time travel renders most of 11:00 AM redundant.
Though it has mostly turned out to be a fool's errand, I tend to get excited about Korean sci-fis because of Korean cinema's ability to play with genre but also, on a more basic level, for its very high production values, particularly when it comes to design. Though full of laboratories and futuristic machines, the sets in 11:00 AM reminded me of local TV dramas: bright (at least until the power goes out), drab, and lacking imagination. The same could also be said of the cinematography, which vacillates between bare-bones functionality and bizarre choices, such as one scene where the camera revolves on itself repeatedly as it gazes at the characters sitting at a round table.
Jung Jae-young's trademark taciturn persona is a wonderful tool in films such as Going by the Book (2007) and Castaway on the Moon (2009) but here it does the film no favors whatsoever. His performance is passable but he seems sluggish throughout. One wonders how keen he is to be there. Jung was far more suited to his other starring role this year, in Hong Sangsoo's Our Sunhi, a role that perfectly suited his style. Sadly, Jung's lethargy seems to have gotten the better of his co-stars Kim Ok-vin and Daniel Choy too, as they shuffle about without much conviction, subdued in the face of the catastrophe they find themselves in.
Director Kim Hyun-seok made his bones on romantic and sports fare, reaching his zenith in 2010 with the charming rom-com Cyrano Agency. 11:00 AM marks the first time he hasn't directed from his own material and prior to the film's release he mentioned that he was worried about stepping out of his comfort zone. I'm not one to dissuade people from trying new things, but, at least in this case, there seems to have been a mismatch of script and filmmaker.
Ultimately, the film's greatest weakness is its screenplay, which lacks the requisite chutzpah of sci-fi scripting. Science fiction is indeed the "genre of ideas," and 11:00 AM, a psycho-thriller with incongruous dramatic beats masquerading as sci-fi, is a few ideas short of a thought. For a far superior Korean time travel feature, try last year's gonzo indie Young Gun in the Time instead.