For Eternal Hearts

Bottom Line: A mixed-genre crowd-teaser that's bewildering or bewitching depending on the audience.

Puchon International Fantastic Film Festival

BUCHEON, South Korea -- The 11th Puchon International Fantastic Film Festival opened with the convoluted but engrossing "For Eternal Hearts," which could mark the comeback of Hwang Qu Dok, a director whose 1990 debut, "Looking for My Class From the 1st to the Last," chronicled high school life in an authentic, unsentimental manner that resonated deeply with contemporary Korean audiences. With its unpredictable blend of young romance, mystery, horror and poetic fantasy, and just enough dramatic tension and entertaining elements to keep general audience attention, "Hearts" is a fitting choice to kick off a festival of this kind.

To attempt a synopsis would not so much give away the plot as to throw the reader into greater confusion. Crammed full of plot twists and crisscrossing timelines and threatening to throw continuity to the wind, the film's scattered red herrings eventually turn out to be telling plot points. While nodding to and flouting genre conventions at the same time, the filmmaker's seemingly gimmicky visual tricks and ironic reversals challenge chronology as an artificial narrative and, on a deeper level, as an existential construct.

The film begins in the present, with college professor Su-young urged by his students to recount his first love. The scene shifts to a campus in the '70s where university student Su-young (Jung Kyung Ho) befriends a feisty classmate nicknamed Pippi (Kim Min Sun). Just when it starts to shape up as a youthful romantic comedy, the historical background of the violent and bloody student movement takes over.

Not long into this section, a supernatural element kicks in when Su-young becomes haunted by strange hallucinations and apparitions after a fateful action of Pippi's. He is asked by a classmate to tutor his sister, Su-ji (Cha Su Yeon). Although supposedly still set in the '70s, the mise-en-scene of Su-ji's gothic mansion, complete with creepy "Igor-like" housekeeper, seems to transport us decades back in time.

An accumulating sense of deja vu and the conflation of names and memories, and of fantasy and reality, might bring up associations with such prototypical Korean time-warp romances as "Il Mare" and "Ditto." However, a self-consciousness of its filmic references runs through the romance, along with insinuations of incest and a political backdrop. One of the story's darkest notes of irony occurs at the climax of Su-ji's courtship, standing before a night sky lit up by shimmering stars and an outburst of fireworks, which then transpires to be something else -- a veiled indictment of the oppressive military regime of the time.

Recurrent CGI images of butterflies may be a visual trope for Chinese philosopher Zhuangzi's paradox about the illusory nature of existence -- did he dream of being a butterfly, or did the butterfly dream of being him? The film's blurring of the boundaries between the living and the dead recalls a similar premise in Alejandro Amenabar's "The Others," but where the latter is consistent in building tension upon one final turn of the screw, the former's knotty narrative never clearly explains the true relationship between the four main characters. This is a shame because for those who do get it, everything that happens before actually makes sense, and the film is essentially an ode to mind over mortality and the power of love to rejuvenate life. Performances are of uneven style and quality, and so are production design and cinematography.

Sponge Ent/Cine Kuang Jang
Director-screenwriter: Hwang Qu Duk
Producers: Cho Sung Kyu, Cho Eun Un, Hwang Qu Dok
Director of photography: Go Myung Wook
Music: Ko Beom June, Kim C
Editor: Kim Sang Beom
Su-young: Jung Kyung Ho
Pippi: Kim Min Sun
Su-ji: Cha Su Yeon
Norang Shirts: Kim C.
Running time -- 104 minutes
No MPAA rating