Reviewed by: Gunner

November 10, 2004

Rating: four-point-five

Korean name: Donggam

Yoon So-eun: Kim Ha-Neul (My Tutor Friend, Too Beautiful to Lie)
Jee In: Yoo Ji-Tae (Attack the Gas Station, Old Boy)

Review (Contains spoilers!)
There are many ways to interpret the movie Ditto. At its most basic level, it’s a melodrama infused with a bit of science fiction. On the other end of the spectrum, the movie is symbolic of the political and social upheaval South Korea has gone through over the past three decades to become the democracy it is today. While the context is quite distinctly Korean, the lessons to be learnt are much further-reaching. Many of those born in the past two decades, especially in the East Asia region, have grown up amidst affluent and prosperous societies and in relatively safe conditions. However, that luxury was something that most of those belonging to the older generations were not so fortunate to enjoy. Indeed, much of what we enjoy now is the direct result of the suffering our forebears endured and this is the main theme behind Ditto. We are always told by our elders not to ‘take things for granted’ and very rightly so, because what are now basic amenities for us were not always so. Indeed, the main lesson we can draw from the movie is that we should learn to appreciate what we have around us.

The story at first glance is pretty similar to the Hollywood production Frequency, but the differences upon viewing are significant enough. So-eun (played by Kim Ha-Neul), is a university student who has a crush on her classmate. One day she chances across a HAM radio (an old type of radio transmitter) which she take home. She is then contacted by a HAM radio hobbyist known as In (played by Yoo Ji-Tae) who happens to come from the same university as her. Anxious to learn how to operate the ham radio to impress her crush, So-eun agrees to meet In the following day in front of the school clock-tower to get an instruction manual from him. It is during this attempt to meet each other and the subsequent events that follow that we are introduced to the first major twist of the movie. So-eun is from 1979, where the clock-tower is still under construction, while In is from 2000. There is no real attempt to explain this phenomena on the movie’s part, but there isn’t really a need since this little time-travel element is only a means of furthering the plot, not an end to the plot itself.

The differences highlighted in the two time periods are stark indeed and is masterfully conveyed by director. So-eun’s room for example is simple and frugal with minimal lighting while In’s room is brightly-lit with neon lights and even has a large expensive aquarium right in the middle of it. So-eun is also dressed plainly in the typical sweet girl-next-door fashion with woollen sweater and all while In carries a futuristic looking hard-cased backpack and has his hair highlighted white. Going even more in-depth though, So-eun’s lives in a Korea where there is a curfew imposed at night and where she herself believes the world will end in the year 2000. This could not be in greater contrast to In’s world where the roads are still busy at night and where there already is so much more to look forward to than the year 2000. When So-eun asks In about his world, “Is it beautiful? Worth living in the world?” he replies, “As always, the world is a good place to be in.” Also, while So-eun pines for her first love, In is dismissive of his girlfriend (played by Ha Ji-Won) despite her attentions. It is interesting to note that while both characters live in the same physical Korea and even attend the same universities; their lives could not be more alien to each other.

After their first conversation, there is an initial sense of apprehension, but eventually both parties overcome their suspicions of each other with no small help from the ‘predictions’ that In is able to tell So-eun about ‘future’ events. A sort of friendship blossoms between the two and So-eun eventually confides in In about her crush on her classmate. However, it is here that we are introduced to the second major twist of the movie; and that is In is the son of So-eun’s crush and her best friend. For So-eun, the news is devastating. It is like going to a fortune-teller that is always correct and learning that you are going to die soon. There is no light at the end of the tunnel, nothing to look forward to. In an instance, all hope is lost. While the loss of a romantic crush may not seem like a life-and-death situation, it is important to take the symbolic context in which this unfolds for So-eun. The year 1979 is a major threshold in South Korea’s history. It was the year where the benevolent, if not authoritarian, President Park Chung Hee was assassinated, signalling the end of almost two decades of stability that saw South Korea rapidly industrialise and take its place among the economic giants of the world. It was also the year that saw the rise to power of President Chun Doo Hwan in a military coup, signalling the start of the most oppressive and brutal period in the modern history of South Korea, a highlight of which was the infamous Kwanju Massacre. The reign of President Chun’s military junta was to last until the early 90s and for a So-eun who believes that the world is going to end in the year 2000, there certainly is not much to look forward to.

In’s 2000 is no less significant though. It marks not only the start of the new millennia and proof that the world is not going to end, but also the second year of the term of President Kim Dae Jung, the very first democratically elected opposition candidate in South Korea. It is in So-eun’s eventual choice that these two distinctive eras are linked together. So-eun upon learning that she is not destined to end up with her crush, gives up her love and in doing so, ensures In’s existence in the future. Thus the symbolic link between past and present is highlighted and in a heart-wrenching way, because So-eun, as portrayed by a young and sweet-looking Kim Ha Neul, is so pure and innocent that you feel she deserves so much more. Instead, her suffering is magnified when we know what she is going to go through following the year 1979 without even love to provide her comfort. The greatest tragedy of all though is that there is no place for So-eun in the year 2000 and that is representative of the tragedy suffered by the ‘forgotten generation’ of those turbulent times. In does not even know of So-eun’s existence until he digs up an old school yearbook of his parents’. Like so many others from that generation, So-eun has become another helpless and nameless victim of history. Indeed, the greatest mistake we can make is to forget what those who come before us have done so that we might enjoy what we have today.

So-eun’s final conversation with In is extremely powerful and takes place in a beautifully filmed scene where So-eun and In walk the same path in their school campus, albeit in their respective years. She says:

They say people live with a scent and they scatter the scent everywhere. When the scent is gone, they die. But some people still have the scent after death, and some people pass on the scent to others, then it can spread everywhere. I know his scent; I’d recognise it with my eyes closed. Him and I; we definitely live with the same emotion. Same sorrow, same joy; we’d keep the same scent and live forever. The feeling that I have in 1979, I’m sure you will be able to feel it in 2000.

While on one hand recognising in In a new type of hope which was previously embodied by her crush, it also makes us reflect on what legacy we seek to hand down to our children. Will what we hand down be reflective of our own lives and will that reflection be good or bad? More importantly, is the legacy we leave behind ultimately beneficial to those around us whom we hold dear? I think those belonging to the previous generations who willingly suffered so that their descendants might enjoy better lives knew very well how they wanted to answer those questions and it is our duty to ensure that their legacy is not wasted. In the end, In learns to treasure his girlfriend more and thus symbolically enjoy what So-eun was never able to enjoy. While this does not erase the pain that So-eun felt, we are at least able to find some solace in the fact that her sacrifice was not in vain.

Ditto is a bitter-sweet tale which tugs at our emotions in an unusual way. Kim Ha-Neul, portraying a far different role from her wacky character in My Tutor Friend, and Yoo Ji-Tae, in particular turn in excellent performances as the leads and combined with excellent cinematography, only serves to enhance the entire viewing experience. While there is no direct romance between the two leads for us to relate to, the experiences the characters go through makes us feel for them. The moment So-eun learns about her future, we know what is going to happen and it is this knowledge that nothing can be done to change it that helps us to experience the helplessness So-eun feels. Indeed, the key lesson in the movie is that the present is irrevocably linked to the past but yet it is also from the past that we gain a measure of dignity. Only when we understand that dignity are we able to appreciate what we have in the present. There is no doubt that the movie is a slow one, but for those who are willing to sit down and reflect on its lessons, it is definitely a worthwhile experience.

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