Writer-director Moon Seung-wook’s Nabi, a brilliant piece of South Korean science fiction, contains one of the great Pirandellian moments of cinema. Anna, the protagonist, has returned home to Korea after living in Germany, where she always felt like a stranger. She has just lost a child in childbirth; her luggage is missing, but it is time for her, she feels, just to let things go. All she wants to do is to forget, and the “oblivion virus,” which wipes out painful memories, is available in this Korean city, which, for lack of a better name, let us call Seoul. The woman who (beautifully) plays Anna is Kim Ho-jung (best actress, Locarno). Near the end of the film, Anna finds a stash of passports that belonged to others who came to Seoul in search of amnesia to numb their pain. “Looks like you,” the Butterfly Tourist agent remarks about the photograph in one of these. He ain’t kidding. Has Anna been back before? Was her memory erased an earlier time? The name on the passport? Kim Ho-jung!
Shot using digital video, Nabi is set “sometime after 2001”—the year of the present, but also so resonant a date in terms of futuristic science fiction that we say “two-thousand-and-whatever” rather than “twenty-o-whatever,” which is what we more likely would be saying had there not been the British film that called itself what it did call itself (2001: A Space Odyssey, Stanley Kubrick, 1968). In this present, Seoul is in the throes of lethal acid rain—an ironic reflection on both the world’s woes and all the dissolving human memory; given that the action includes dips below a hotel swimming pool and a human birthing in the sea, this is a very wet film indeede. It is also, despite a few fleeting lapses, a gorgeous and haunting meditation on memory, memory’s burden of pain and, indirectly, its necessity. Nabi is therefore closer in quality to such outstanding works as Chris Marker’s La jetée (1962), Alain Resnais’s Muriel (1963), Jean-Luc Godard’s Alphaville (1965) and Andrei Tarkovsky’s Solaris (1972) than it is to Michel Gondry’s disappointing, mediocre Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind (2004), and it is nowhere near the garbage heap that 12 Monkeys (Terry Gilliam, 1995) and Memento (Christopher Nolan, 2000) inhabit, breeding maggots.
I love the sad, haunting, lost, melancholy mood of Moon’s film. It is like that of Conrad Aiken’s quiet, dreamlike Christian poem “Three Star Final”—a mood that Aiken likewise identified with an urban landscape:
Wait here, and I’ll be back, though the hours divide,
and the city streets, perplexed, perverse, delay
my hurrying footsteps, and the clocks deride
with grinning faces from the long wall of day:
wait here, beneath your narrow scrip of sky,
reading the headlines, while the snowflakes touch
on scarce-dried ink the news that thousands die,
die, and are not remembered overmuch:
yes, the unnumbered dead, whom none esteemed,
our other selves, too late or little loved;
now in the dust, proud eyes unknown, undreamed,
those who begged pity while we stood unmoved.
How can we patch our world up, now it’s broken?
You, with your guilty heart, wait here and think,
while I strive back through lies and truths unspoken,
and, in the suburbs, the sunset snow turns pink:
you, in this dead-end street, which now we leave
for a more expansive, a more expensive, view;
snow falling, on a disastrous Christmas Eve,
and neon death at the end of the Avenue.
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