Falling somewhere between a sentimental drama and a story of survival and courage, Traces of Love is a hidden gem in disaster movies. Inspired by real events, this fictional tale of love lost takes itself extremely seriously and is emotionally charged. It also acts as a wonderful tourist pamphlet for visiting South Korea during autumn!
The disasters faced
A collapsing building, negligent builders, owners and officials, corporate and government scandal, claustrophobia and sleeping with the light off.
Traces of Love is inspired by the 1995 Sampoong Department Store collapse. In one of the most disgustingly blatant corporate wrongdoings I’ve read up on in disasterdom, the owners of the store purposely changed contractors to build a high-end department store that was doomed to collapse from the start. On the day of the collapse, all the management evacuated but refused to close and evacuate the store themselves because of potential loss of revenue. The store then collapsed and the government decided to move from search and rescue to death recovery. It took an uproar from the general public to get the government to actually start digging for survivors again and the whole thing utterly stinks from top to bottom. It went on to create a legal drama afterwards that has never really been truly resolved.
This film doesn’t tackle all of the Sampoong Department Store collapse but instead, without naming the store, places our leading trio of characters right in the heart of the collapse. Hyun-woo is an aspiring lawyer and has fallen head over heels for Min-joo. Min-joo works in media and travels around the country to film and take photos and in doing so, she is building up a collection of places she’d like to visit for their honeymoon. On the fateful day, Hyun-woo has to pop back to work for a meeting and asks Min-joo to wait for him at the cafe at the department store. She does so and it is here she buys some trainers and places her honeymoon itinerary book inside the shoebox as a gift. Just as Hyun-woo gets to the road in front of the store, it buckles and collapses in front of his eyes, seemingly killing everyone inside. The real-life tragedy killed 502.
Hyun-woo and Min-joo’s parents desperately search for her but she has indeed died. Min-joo’s honeymoon book survives though and as the parents hand the book over, Hyun-woo decides to do the honeymoon trip himself as some kind of closure. It is here where he keeps running into Se-jin. Se-jin seems to remind Hyun-woo an awful lot of his fiance, now departed. Se-jin also seems quite troubled too. It all comes together when Se-jin sees the honeymoon book. She too was trapped in the department store – she was serving Min-joo tea when the collapse happened and they spent several days trapped under the rubble. As Min-joo died, she passed the book through a gap in the debris for Se-jin to get out.
What follows is a heartwarming tale of moving on, laying demons to rest and finding forgiveness for the world around you as well as yourself.
Why is it worth watching?
Traces of Love is a very poetic and relaxed movie. In total, around half an hour of the movie is spent on the actual collapse. The rest is dealing with the emotional trauma of survivor’s guilt and the “it should have been me” syndrome. Se-jin can’t sleep with the light off. Hyun-woo cannot face his would-be inlaws. They are both broken but they are also survivors too and this movie really focuses on that.
The poetry applies to timelines too. As we wander from one beautiful landscape to another, we see it in different time periods. Hyun-woo and Se-jin are here now but Min-joo walks in and out of shots from her initial visit with her film crew. There are some poignant shots where timelines walk past each other and it tugs at your heartstrings. This allows us to see Min-joo grow as a person, her romance with Hyun-woo blossom and Se-jin try to become a more stable person after the event. Asian languages are often more poetic too and words of wisdom fly out regularly too.
Lastly, this film is gorgeously shot. The vistas, landscapes, reflections and vibrant colours of nature shine. It is rare on this site that I can comment on a disaster film looking beautiful but Traces of Love does. It could work as an Autumn tourist board for South Korea! So many locked off shots just look artistically inviting, it doesn’t go unnoticed.
The collapse itself is shown in two distinct scenes. Early in the film, you’ll see it from the outside from Hyun-woo’s perspective. Later on, the grim panicked version shows the ladies inside the food court. Whilst the collapse looks better in the second version, what looks best is the aftermath. The rescue scenes look like complete carnage and there are some interesting camera angles. Initially, I thought the film had placed news footage into it, it looks that good.
The big shout out goes to Min-joo who seems like the happiest, loveliest woman alive. Of course, she’d be the one to die. Disaster movie logic. That doesn’t mean everyone else is a troll though. The cast is almost universally likeable. Se-jin feels like she’s discovering herself. Hyun-woo is a bit too mumbly at times but does have humour and personality to balance it out. The parents, whilst not in many scenes, carry gravitas that lasts long after they leave. Look out for comedy confusion from Investigator Park, Hyun-woo’s work friend. Much like his role in one of my all-time fav films The Tower, he is the comic relief but sadly underused here. Indeed, this slice of life pacing means you’ll be left to meditate over the film’s musings rather than leap from one drama to the next. I like it that way, it works here.
The forest that grows in my heart is you.Min-joo speaks of her love for hyun-woo
Three memorable moments
- The aftermath of the collapse in the gymnasium as the grief overcomes the parents.
- Se-jin recounts the ordeal of being trapped with Min-joo.
- A collection of Min-Joo’s philosophies of life – dropped like random quotes of wisdom throughout the movie.
The obligatory weird moment
I wouldn’t say it’s weird but Se-jin’s little brother is a punk and he needs a slap. Taking her money from her whilst she’s zoned out in a panic. Boooooo!
The drinking game
Although there are a few scenes revolving around sharing a glass of alcohol together, I’d rather take a drink for every time I thought “oooh, that’s a beautiful spot I’d want to visit.” I’m too fat and lazy for massive hikes and even I wanted to climb up all these village roads to reach temples and natural spots of beauty.
Whilst some may say (probably rightly) that this is a drama and romance movie with a disaster element to it, Traces of Love nails the mood. I was invested in this slow-moving but emotionally engaging story. I wanted redemption for everyone and I also wanted justice for all those who died. A terrible tragedy.
Rating: 4 / 5 – Excellent
If you enjoyed Traces of Love, then you might also like…
- Titanic (1997) – a real life event with another doomed fictional couple!
- Aftershock / Tangshan Dadizhen – An emotional film about a family separated for decades following an earthquake
- The Tower – South Korea’s finest disaster movie ever made in my humble opinion.
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