Simultaneously released in 2004, Lee Jae-han’s (이재한) A Moment to Remember (내 머리 속의 지우개) seemingly went head-to-head with Nick Cassavetes’ The Notebook in portraying a love plagued by the onset of dementia. Yet while Cassavetes’ non-linear effort primarily focused on the social inequality during 1940s America, Lee Jae-han’s film is more concerned with the devastating impact wrought by the onset Alzhemier’s disease on a young couple.
The result is one of the most emotional and compelling romantic films committed to celluloid, a poignant tale of love that never feels contrived and featuring incredible character studies in the form of the central leads. While the struggle of the later stages of the disease are kept to a minimum, A Moment to Remember is an emotional tour-de-force that would leave only the hardest of hearts unmoved.
Fashion designer Su-jin (Son Ye-jin (손예진) had intended to elope with her married boss Seo Yeong-min (Baek Jong-hak (백종학), yet at the crucial moment was abandoned at the train station. Heart-broken and humiliated, Su-jin returns to work where she is frequently the source of gossip and shunned by her peers. Despite her privileged upper-middle class lifestyle Su-jin is often clumsy and forgetful, even taking a drink from a stranger believing it to be her own. While visiting her architect father Su-jin meets poor ill-mannered carpenter and foreman Cheol-su (Jeong Woo-seong (정우성), and their mutual attraction develops into a loving relationship and later, despite opposition, to being married. As Su-jin and Cheol-su enjoy married life and support each other in ways neither knew existed, Su-jin’s memory gradually worsens and is diagnosed with a rare genetic case of Alzheimer’s disease. With her memories fading, Cheol-su and Su-jin battle the difficulties posed by the disease to remember their love.
Director and screenwriter Lee Jae-han does an excellent job in constructing an organic and believable romance between Su-jin and Cheol-su. So many films within the genre focus solely on the initial development of love, yet Lee Jae-han extends this further through presenting deeper emotional problems, and the attempts to heal them, in marriage. Such a philosophy is ultimately the reason why A Moment to Remember is so successful as the film never forgoes character study for the sake of contrived conventions, instead emphasizing the strengths and frailties of the central characters and the spiritual growth that occurs through their relationship. Scenes in which Su-jin’s pain from her prior affair heal, and Cheol-su’s confrontation with his mother who abandoned him, are wonderfully portrayed and convey a sincerity of love that is all too rare in representations of romance.
Lee Jae-han also deserves credit for the manner in which he tackles the portrayal of Alzheimer’s disease, which he deftly and efficiently amalgamates throughout the script. Certain scenes are incredibly nuanced, such as Su-jin fainting through stress and dropping the contents of her purse to reveal an inordinate amount of pens, while others are more overt portrayals as she loses her way home. The technical prowess during such sequences allows the audience to experience Su-jin’s confusion, providing POV shots that move in and out of focus on busy streets and rapid camera movement and editing that effectively convey her distress and terror. Following Su-jin’s official diagnosis, endearing visuals such as the labeling of items within the house emerge in conjunction with heart-breaking sequences of memory loss, making A Moment to Remember a highly profound and poignant viewing experience.
In performing such an intense form of love, Son Ye-jin as Su-jin gives is wonderful and the highlight of the film. Her subtle mannerisms convey a wealth of simultaneous emotions ranging from insecurity, strength, innocence and ambition seemingly with ease, and is an absolute delight. The actress excels during dramatic scenes as she breaks down through stress, while her blank, confused and scared expression acutely convey her suffering due to the onset of Alzheimer’s. Son Ye-jin is absolutely enthralling throughout A Moment to Remember and her utterly convincing performance forms the heart and soul of the film.
Jeong Woo-seong is also highly compelling as carpenter-turned-architect Cheol-su. His evolution of character is performed with grace and subtlety, initially brash, ill-mannered and aggressive yet through his relationship with Su-jin becoming attentive, responsible, and loving. As with Son Ye-jin, Jeong Woo-seong conveys a remarkable array of emotions within his performance varying from his hostility at a construction site, his untamed anger at his childhood, through to his adoration of Su-jin.
If there is a criticism to be made against A Moment to Remember, it is the absence of exploring the final stages of Alzheimer’s disease and the impact it presents within Chol-su and Su-jin’s relationship. While certain features of the disease are presented, the director clearly – and ironically – wants the memory of their love prior to Su-jin’s diagnosis to remain with audiences making the omission an understandable creative decision.
A Moment to Remember is a wonderfully charming, poignant, and romantic film. Such potency is ultimately due to screenwriter/director Lee Jae-han’s dedication to characterization which is remarkable throughout, which Son Ye-jin and Jeong Woo-seong perform with integrity and sincerity. While more depth could have been applied to the later stages of the disease, the organic manner of the central relationship and the sensitivity in which their love is presented make A Moment to Remember an absolute must-see romantic film.