BiFan 2023 Review: 2035, Korean Reunification Mockumentary Digs to Creepy Depths after Slow Start
The division of the Korean Peninsula has long fuelled the imagination of Korean cineastes and unlocked the purse strings of local viewers. Yet while we tend to remember the more bombastic titles, such as Joint Security Area and Secret Reunion, wily filmmakers with more modest means have recently found intriguing ways to breath new life into this specific set of films.
This can be through different genres such as comedy (just look at last year's surprise hit 6/45, one of only a handful of Korean films to earn back their money in 2022), and through allegory. Both apply to Park Jae-in's lo-fi debut film 2035.
One of several mockumentary-style films in the Korean Fantastic Features Competition at BiFan this year, this film imagines a unified Korean peninsula, a popular sci-fi trope that has been seen over the years in 2009: Lost Memories, Illang: The Wolf Brigade or the Netflix series Money Heist: Korea - Joint Economic Area.
Made on a shoestring budget, 2035 focuses on a documentary crew shooting footage to commemorate the ten-year anniversary of the reunification (which in the film's world occurred in 2025). The footage imagines a few things that might come about following a hypothetical Korean reunification, including a popular Eurasian International Railroad that hurtles from Korea straight through to Europe.
But this celebration quickly turns into a mystery as the Korean-American investigative journalist (played by Oh Tae-kyung, also the lead of fellow competition title I Haven't Done Anything) tasked with making this video captures some unusual testimony.
While interviewing North Korean defectors, soldiers and students, whom he plies with fried chicken, booze and cigarettes, he learns about an explosion that took place around the time of the reunification and bizarre green lights that were witnesses at the former DMZ (Korean Demilitarized Zone).
The deeper he goes, the wilder the crackpots he interviews become, and Korean film fans will delight in recognizing some familiar faces, including Hong Sang-soo acolyte Ki Joo-bong (Hotel By the River) and Park No-shik (Memories of Murder).
While the film explores several pertinacious prejudices regarding North Korea, such as the hard life of defectors in the south and lasting paranoia concerning spies, from a narrative standpoint it struggles to guide us through a legible mystery. Far be it from being too mysterious, it just doesn't make a great deal of sense. Even if we give it the benefit of the doubt, getting to the logic requires too much effort.
At 105 minutes, 2035 is far too long, but stick around and you'll be rewarded with a hugely effective climax in a film that absolutely saves the best for last.
Without spoiling what happens, by the time the documentary crew have dug very deep down the rabbit hole, we enter full-on sci-fi and horror territory. Things get very freaky and claustrophobic and you'll be desperate for the film's intrepid documentarians to keep going, precisely because it's clearly such a terrible idea for them to do so.