Fate is a cruel mistress in director Kwon Ho-Young's Parallel Life. Although the film is propped up by a central conceit that only a paranoia junkie could love, the twists and turns in Han Jeung Ae's script are wholly original and frequently breathtaking. This is a gripping thriller that leaves its mark by promising a resolution up front and then forcing its lead character to squirm around in order to avoid it.
Suk-Hyun (Ji Jin-Hee) is a tough but honest judge. His dedication to upholding the law with often unpopular decisions has earned him quite the reputation with the public. With an important promotion bolstering his confidence, he seems to be set for bigger and better things when tragedy strikes. His wife is found bludgeoned to death, leaving Suk-Hyun to grieve alone with his young daughter. This is when the theory of parallel lives is tossed into the mix. A reporter approaches the devastated judge and explains that his life is following an arc that is identical to another judge's (his predecessor in fact) only removed by 30 years. This is troubling news for Suk-Hyun since his predecessor's entire family was wiped out in a massacre years ago. If this is a fate that he plans on avoiding, he will have to take an active role in fighting what destiny has in store for him.
Now, I must get one thing straight before I go any further. Suspension of disbelief is paramount to your enjoyment of this film. If you're the sort that scoffs at the mere idea of two strangers living identical lives separated by space and time, then you'll never make it through this one. I'll admit that the opening montage which suggests that Abraham Lincoln and John F. Kennedy had way more in common than we ever realized, is quite silly (and much of it easily debunked). The film doesn't need this bit of sensationalism to make its point. Something strange is afoot for Suk-Hyun. It would be just as strange without dragging dead presidents into the mix.
Once you get behind the enormity of the predicament that our lead finds himself in, this becomes an entertaining exercise in fate versus free will that ratchets up the tension until a climactic release that is somehow predictable yet surprising. Many filmmakers would have come up with a crackerjack finale and slowly built up to it without tipping their hands. Kwon Ho-Young and Han Jeung Ae take pleasure in going against the grain. They gladly offer up critical revelations early in the game, secure in the knowledge that they still have some real doozies hidden behind their backs. This also allows them to have a bit of fun with the idea of course-correction. Just when Suk-Hyun thinks he has removed an obstacle from his path, an unexpected set of events will end up replacing it with something even worse. Gradually, we get the feeling that every action, no matter how logical in context, is actually propelling our lead towards the very thing he is trying to avoid.
I can't say much more about the film without spoiling its surprises so let me just give kudos to its capable cast. This is one of those movies where practically everyone is guilty of something and therefore working hard at making it seem as though they have nothing to hide. In cases like this, some character depth is often given up so that the red herrings can be as herringy as possible. It is to the credit of the central cast that they appear to have shades of gray rather than bland neutrality. Ji Jin-Hee gives us a strong lead to emotionally invest ourselves in. Watching his life unravel is a harrowing experience; one that he sells from start to finish. Lee Jeong-Hyuk adds an interesting edge to the film as a prosecutor who often comes to Suk-Hyun's aid but may have ulterior motives of his own. If you're intrigued (and I hope you are), I urge you to check out this Korean flick since it could easily fly under the radar and that would be a grave injustice.