It's a bit slow in the first half, but the second half twist made it much more interesting. In the end, I really liked it. I think it's delicate, subtle, sad and rather beautiful. Apparently there's a genre of films like this, which surprises me.
I'll be mentioning that twist, by the way, so SPOILERS.
We begin with Ha-Neul Kim as a nervous girl telling pointless lies because she's nervous about a boy (Yong-woo Park). She's sweet, but for the film's first ten minutes I wanted to slap her. Fortunately though this is just a temporary glitch and just one of many indications that Kim's completely away with the fairies. She's hopelessly in love with Park. She doesn't reply when her parents talk to her at home and she doesn't pay attention in class. She has slightly weird conversations, not because she's a weird person but because her feelings have made her that way. Park's just come back from his military service and she wrote him lots of letters throughout, undoubtedly counting the hours until his return.
She's an innocent. She's going around with her head in the clouds, but she's likeable and couldn't hurt a fly. She also has a best friend (Seung-min Lee) in hospital, whom she visits regularly. Park isn't as smitten as Kim, obviously, but he likes her well enough and he seems like a decent chap.
That's one set of protagonists. The other are Ji-tae Yu and Ji-won Ha, who couldn't be more different. Yu is an arrogant cock. Ha is clearly keen on him, but he practically tramples her underfoot and gives her non-stop abuse and put-downs. "Stop annoying me." "Don't open your mouth; it stinks." "Just read it; stop me if you find a difficult word." Unbelievably Ha sticks around despite this, but his manner has hardened her and she's nearly as brusque as he is. Theoretically it's the same relationship as Park and Kim, both featuring a girl in love with a boy whose feelings don't mirror hers, but the gulf in personalities make the two couples seem like counterparts from an anti-matter universe.
Alert: spoiler coming, although not the bigger ones in the second half.
That's enough warning. Remember I said Kim told a lie at the beginning? She took flustered shelter in the ham radio club room and then pretended to be a ham radio enthusiast when found. (All the cast are university students, by the way.) One thing leads to another and soon Kim finds herself with a clunky radio set and the feeling that she should probably start using it if she doesn't want to blow her credibility. She does so, makes contact with Ji-tae Yu and starts having conversations with him.
The bit they don't realise immediately is that she's in 1979 and he's in 2000.
This is really cool. The SF angle perked the film up no end, removing any question of Kim-Yu romantic interest despite the relationship that builds up between them and instead giving them something mind-bending to explore. I was particularly impressed by the bit where they agree without a second thought that it would be wrong for Yu to use his future knowledge (e.g. the stock market) to make Kim obscenely rich. There are twists of the kind you'll be approximately expecting, but this is a Korean film and so they're leading not to the Hollywood ending but instead somewhere that's at once tragic, optimistic and unresolved. It's sad and happy. It raises the issue of self-fulfilling prophecies and the question of whether X would have happened if Y hadn't said/done Z, despite the fact that for him it's in the past.
However at the same time, there's a political angle. In 1979, the repressive military dictator General Park Chung-hee was assassinated, only to be replaced by people who were even worse. The entire country was put under martial law, universities were closed and political activities were banned. Democracy only came to South Korea in 1987, after the Catholic Priests Association for Justice brought up the case of a university student who'd been tortured to death. In 2000, in contrast, South Korea had free elections and a president with a "Sunshine Policy" of engagement, which won him a summit with North Korea and a Nobel Peace Prize.
We experience both eras. Kim and Park in 1979 have to go through military checkpoints and observe a curfew. For them, university is a place of violent demonstrations and political struggle. In 2000, when asked to show her student identification in order to be able to take out a library book, Ha replies that no one bothers carrying that. Kim thought the world was going to have ended by 2000 and asks Yu about unification. Nope, alas. At the time of writing, there's still a North Korea. The film doesn't make a big deal out of this, but it's clearly there and an important subtext. Note the snippets of vintage film and TV we sometimes see, for instance.
I've seen the suggestion made that there's something very Korean about this storyline. It's not as capriciously cruel as many Korean films, but it's about people (and indeed the entire country) being shaped by traumatic experiences, by their acceptance of this and by the fact that they're separated from people with whose fates they're bound up.
In other words, I really liked it. I've also discovered to my surprise that there's a "talking across time" genre, of which this isn't even the only example from that 2000. There's another South Korean film on the same theme from that year, Il Mare, which Hollywood remade six years later as The Lake House with Keanu Reeves and Sandra Bullock. I know which one I'll be watching first. There's another American one from 2000, Frequency, which is more of a thriller. Peppermint Candy is a bit different, but that's yet another Korean film from around then that's telling a character-based story involving time travel. The key note, as far as I can tell, is the struggle of characters in all these Korean films to come to terms with what's happened to them. They either accept it or break. It's not so different from a heartbreaker like Failan.
Ditto does one unbelievable thing at the end, though. We see one of the 1979 characters in the year 2000. In the past, she's played by a young, beautiful actress of about twenty. In the present, she's exactly the same... but wearing spectacles. Oh dear. Fortunately I was sufficiently caught up in the film by that point that I didn't mind, but it still looks ridiculous.
This is an outstanding film, in its unobtrusive way. If you like intelligent, emotionally rich SF, this is for you. Park Yong-woo could perhaps have been a little less opaque in his performance, but opacity makes sense given his plot function. Kim and Yu though are excellent. The story is modest and could be said to lack resolution, but I liked that. The characters are strong and the situations are powerful. Recommended.