BiFan 2022 Review: MIND UNIVERSE, SF Indie Explores Ideas of Grief and Memory
Given the increasingly democratic access to film technology and the explosion of box office, ratings and streaming success for genre stories in the Korean market, it's no surprise that a growing number of local filmmakers have embraced science fiction, a genre that allows storytellers to find new ways to express old ideas. However, the genre is still in its infancy in the country and has had something of a spotty track record.
The Apostle director Kim Jin-moo takes his strike at bat with Mind Universe, a film that comprises two very complementary mid-length sci-fi films into a feature that explores the implications of using technology to soothe our grief when the people we love leave us.
In 'Today of Tomorrow', the elderly Heejin has subscribed to a service where she gets to log into a virtual reconstruction of the consciousness of her late partner Seonwoo. In this virtual world she is once again a youth and each time the simulation starts she appears on a beach, with Seonwoo a few steps away staring forward into the sea.
The problem is that Seonwoo doesn't recognise her and all she has are three hours to talk with him before the program ends and Seonwoo's memories are wiped once more. Heejin can re-enter the program every 24 hours. Heejin keeps trying to get Seonwoo to remember her but everything she does fails to jog his memory. Eventually, she tries something different. She pretends not to know him.
In 'Our Universe', astronaut Sori travels through the galaxy in the future when she receives news of the passing of her father. Her father is composer Kim Hyung-suk (a real life figure who composed the score to My Sassy Girl, among others, who plays himself here) and the virtual funeral has already begun.
Hyung-suk's consciousness has been uploaded to the funeral program and he converses with the bereaved through various video chat rooms. Unable to confront him directly, Sori lurks around several rooms, through which we get a glimpse of Hyung-suk's life, as he shares final words with his students, mentees and family. Through witnessing these other interactions, Sori steadily works up the courage to speak one last time to her beloved father.
While Korea has yet to produce a large body of sci-fi works, stories dealing with memory and grief make up for a large share of them. Among these are stories that imagine using A.I. or cloning technology to bring loved ones back to life, much like in the acclaimed American indie Marjorie Prime. Korean examples include Lee Yong-ju's action-SF Seobok, Lee Ho-jae's TV film Goodbye My Life Insurance and Kim Tae-yong's star-studded upcoming project Wonderland, which will bow on Netflix.
While science fiction is still a little unfamiliar in the country, melodrama is the industry's staple diet and it makes sense that local storytellers would use it as a starting point for their own takes on sci-fi.
Mind Universe is earnest and heartfelt but it's also simplistic and occasionally a bit too mawkish in its attempts to sell its emotion. Sometimes less is more, and this is especially true of high concept works that must engage in a careful balancing act of tone and style. Whereas fantasy can be forgiving, science fiction stories that posit ideas about future technology engaging with our society risk their credibility if they don't appear grounded.
Since Kim's film comprises two complete and relatively short stories, the tales he spins never quite wear out their welcome. Mind Universe is a casually diverting and mildly thought-provoking look at where our technology could lead us, but owing to the limitations of its structure, it only ever scratches the surface of its own ideas.