Ever wondered if you’re living in a simulacrum? Strangely, the thought isn’t one which occurs to the hero of Jang Hang-jun’s Forgotten (기억의 밤, Gieokui Bam) despite his sense of déjà vu and the uncanny eeriness of his world. Then again, perhaps that’s because he is wilfully complicit in his own life lie, afraid to open the door and confront the ghosts trapped inside his psyche seemingly desperate get out. A tense psychological thriller, Forgotten is also a symbolist drama in which Jin-seok, a man literally trapped in the past, is forced to free himself from a locked room mystery only to discover his own dark truths.
Following some distressed sounds from someone who claims not to be able to remember whatever it is they’re being interrogated about, we find a young man, Jin-seok (Kang Ha-neul), peacefully asleep on his mother’s shoulder as his family drive to their new home. Jin-seok is an anxious young man under a lot of stress studying to retake university exams while his brother, Yoo-seok (Kim Mu-yeol), is the archetypal good Korean son. He is handsome (if a little geeky looking), clever, good at sports, patient and kind. In short Yoo-seok is everyone’s hero, not least his little brother’s, while Jin-seok is a nervous wreck who rarely leaves the house and makes sure to have his discman with him when he does to block out the noise and fury of city life. According to the prominently displayed calendar, it is May 1997.
Things start to go awry when Jin-seok finds out that the house’s previous owner has left some property in the upstairs room which he will collect at a later date. The family aren’t supposed to go in there ’til he does and so the brothers will be sharing a room. Jin-seok is however fascinated by the locked door and the strange noises he thinks he can hear coming from upstairs. Things go from bad to worse when Jin-seok witnesses Yoo-seok being kidnapped in the street only to return 19 days later with no memory of where he’s been. Little by little, Jin-seok comes to doubt that the man who has returned is really his brother, but if he isn’t, then who is he and why is any of this happening?
Like all good gothic mysteries, the first problem is Jin-seok’s supposedly fragile mental state. His family repeatedly check he’s taking his medication and take care to ensure his life is as stress free as possible, apparently afraid that he will relapse into some kind of breakdown the cause of which may be partly the reason that the family has moved to a quieter area. Thus neither he nor we can be sure if everything he experiences is real, a product of his strained mind, or a problem with his medication.
Wedded to this story is the coded past of Korea in 1997 struck by the Asian economic crisis which, the film seems to say, provoked a kind of paranoid madness generalised across society. In this difficult climate in which jobs were scarce and even those in professional occupations faced a significant drop in living standards, extreme solutions began to seem attractive. A young woman and her daughter are murdered and the killer never caught, a little boy orphaned and abandoned by his relatives who keep his family’s money for themselves, a young man resolves to commit a terrible transgression in the hope of saving a loved one, and all because of a tragic accident and some random numbers on a screen.
Jang Hang-jun turns the relatively low budget to his advantage in creating a world of intense uncanniness, somehow realer than real but never quite right. Gradually peeling back the layers of Jin-seok’s existence to expose the wires below, Jang’s artistry becomes apparent as the world comes into focus albeit presenting a different kind of mystery. Anchored by the impressive performance of a deglammed Kang Ha-neul, Forgotten is as bleak a tragedy as they come. The truth may set one free, but not quite in the way the saying implies and there are some things with which is it impossible to live. The unseen legacy of a traumatic era sends its invisible shockwaves through the present and out into the future, and perhaps the only way to survive them is to avoid opening the door.
Streaming worldwide via Netflix.
Original trailer (no subtitles)