The Hitchcock-inspired Recalled (2021) is the directorial debut of Seo Yoo-min, screenwriter for The Last Princess, and fuelled by slow-burning suspense—not least about whether the main character, Soo-jin, is experiencing hallucinations, flashbacks or premonitions about violent incidents involving the people living around her.
The film opens with Soo-jin in hospital, nun-like in her bandages, and suffering from insomnia after a hiking accident. She’s tended only by her solicitous husband Ji-hoon, and relies on him for all information about her family and past. At their character-light apartment, the only personal items are their wedding photo and a painting of a lake in Canada, where—Ji-hoon tells her—they’re about to immigrate.
As in George Cukor’s classic Gaslight (1944), the female protagonist is kept cloistered by her husband, disturbed by memories from a violent past and uncertain if she’s losing her mind. “No matter what I say,” Soo-jin tells the doctor (Kim Joo-ryoung of Squid Game), “you think I’m crazy.” Like a guard dog, Ji-hoon sleeps on the floor next to the bed and tracks her movements on his phone. Soo-jin—and viewers—soon grow suspicious. Are her medications really for her injuries or to sedate and confuse her? Where does Ji-hoon go in the middle of the night? Why is the move to Canada so urgent?
Even their apartment block is sinister, a place of closed doors, secret miseries and leaked noises. At night someone always seems to be wheeling around large, suspicious suitcases. Scared by her fragmented premonitions, Soo-jin tries to help various residents—children, a teenaged girl, a man threatened by a thug over an unpaid debt—but her attempts are ineffective, and she grows even more confused. A box of her things, sent from her old job, includes photographs of her with another man: Ji-hoon makes it all disappear.
A sign outside their building advertises “Big Sale on Unsold Units.” The world of the film is suitably claustrophobic, a landscape of unfinished or half-empty blocks that suggests the hubris of developers in a sprawling, anonymous city. All roads, past and present, lead to the “Dream Town Project,” a dusty shell of an unfinished building now scheduled for demolition. Ji-hoon, a bankrupt architect, was involved, and it’s the location of some of Soo-jin’s violent blasts of memory. The men who live in her building, as well as the Dream Town site manager (Kim Jong-goo of Signal, Two Cops and The Negotiation), all seem dodgy.
Subtle sound effects and a low-key musical soundtrack heighten the suspense, though ultimately the story feels complicated rather than complex. As Soo-jin, Seo Yea-ji (It’s Okay not to be Okay) has little to do but wander around looking dazed. She conveys physical fragility but little else in terms of character, though it’s clear that more than one person in her life sees her as vulnerable, in constant need of rescue (or control). When she and Ji-hoon (the excellent Kim Kang-woo of Item) go to the beach, the scene suffused with a soft glow missing from the stark light-and-dark of the rest of the film, Soo-jin is happy, briefly. She floats in the water fully clothed, unable to remember if she can swim. “I’ll always be by your side,” Ji-hoon tells her, “even if you can’t see me.” This may be a promise or a threat: it’s certainly foreshadowing in a film about the disconnect between what we see and what we’re told is the truth.