Director Kwak Jae-young is most widely known for his film My Sassy Girl (2001) which became one of the first romantic comedy films you would hear even the manliest of men wholeheartedly endorse. It has been considered one of the best romantic comedies of the 21st century and even became one of several Korean films from the early 2000s to be remade in Hollywood. His other well known works include The Classic (2003) and the somewhat disappointing Windstruck (2004). Even though director Kwak’s latter films struggled to match the success and appeal of My Sassy Girl, for many fans of Korean cinema, director Kwak was the leader of the pack when it came to on screen romance.
So it is no surprise that Kwak’s latest film, Time Renegades, is also a love story at its heart. It is two love stories in fact, as the film has two timelines running simultaneously and 30 years apart. The film summary above only scratches the surface of the twists and and turns in this time-bending story.
Right from the beginning, Time Renegades establishes the dream connection between Gun-woo (Jo Jung-suk) and Ji-wan (Lee Jin-wook) and things quickly become very supernatural. It feels like a weird mix of Marvels: Agents of Shield, Sherlock, and The Twilight Zone. Based on the advertising for the film, it is a bit surprising how fluffy it begins. Most of the paranormal revelations are taken fairly lightheartedly and there are quite a few attempts at humor. Unfortunately, a lot of the jokes fall flat. Nonetheless, the first part of the film follows the usual beats of a superhero origins story as the two men come to grips with their mysterious new power and its potential. By the end of act one, the cast is assembled and the men are ready to use their powers to change the world around them.
The way each of the men’s actions affect the other timeline’s reality is indeed a cool concept. When the murder investigation begins, opportunities arise for a very unique police procedural film. Time Renegades takes a darker turn in its second act as the two men work together to solve the cold cases that appear to be related to the murder of Ji-wan’s fiancee, Yoon-jeong. Director Kwak takes full advantage of the film’s premise here, and has the men working together using every bit of their ability to see both the past and the future through their dreams. While they make many efforts to alter the course of time, you can’t help but shake your head at some of the ridiculousness as the plot twists come across very contrived. There were even some audible chuckles from the audience at certain effects the men’s actions have on reality.
Im Soo-jung plays two separate characters (Yoon-jung in 1983, and So-eun in 2015) and is the motivation for both men’s actions. The world got to know her from director Kim Ji-woon’s masterfully crafted horror tale, A Tale of Two Sisters (2003), and her more recent award-winning performance in All About My Wife (2012). Even with her being more than capable of playing the two different parts and having some shining moments, she feels underused in Time Renegades, where the overly ambitious story and contrived plot points leave the actors with little breathing room. They simply become chess pieces for director Kwak to tell his story; and he has Soo-jung’s character constantly in play and making random moves all over the board.
The film’s final act plays like a straight thriller, with serial killers running wild and body counts piling up. From the film’s romantic beginnings, you may be surprised at this interesting effort at genre blending. The new wave of Korean films from the early 2000s were quite well known for this and director Kwak comes from this background. His 2008 film My Mighty Princess mixed modern romantic comedy settings with classic fantasy martial arts swordplay. But with these two jarring contrasts in Time Renegades, both in mood and style, the film struggles to find harmony ends up feeling like two separate films. As a thriller, the final showdown underwhelms, resembling everything we’ve seen before. But on the romantic side, we get more pleasing results. Director Kwak taps in to his special abilities for charm and sentimentality that wash away any distaste left over from the bloody finale.
Time Renegades lets down in a lot of ways knowing what the director is capable of. The script feels overly crammed and may have worked better episodically as a series. That being said, I can think of worse ways to spend a couple hours. So I recommend Time Renegades as simple entertainment.
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