The Time Agent: a time travel story of loneliness and alienation

Jude Chun, “The Time Agent” (2016)

In its own unassuming way, “The Time Agent” is a deconstruction of a once common style of narrative in genres as different as the Western, hard-boiled pulp crime fiction or genteel English crime / mystery thrillers: a lone avenger character, self-sufficient and sure of him/herself, comes along and finds a community in trouble, solves the problem and leaves a grateful community to continue to the next neighbourhood in trouble. The consequences of this avenger character’s actions are never known but have to be assumed to be positive. An unnamed South Korean man (Gwui-oong Choi) known only as the Time Agent travels back in time in his machine to subtly undermine, change and break up the relationships of couples who are parents of future mass murderers. Once the mission is complete, the Time Agent must wait in self-imposed seclusion – any interactions he has with people in the time of his mission must be minimised to the utmost to avoid unduly influencing the future – until the time machine starts revving up again, signalling a new mission to get rid of another relationship. For this Time Agent, the time between his recent successful mission and the next one is rather long – one would think there is a backlog of work for him to do for the next 10 years – and he unwittingly violates his code of employment when he sees a teenage girl, Yeesul (Young-hee Jeon), about to jump off the bridge over the Han River (in Seoul) to her death and stops her. He invites the girl to stay with him for a week to minimise the consequences of his impulsive action while she decides if she still wants to commit suicide; for his part, as time goes by, he starts falling in love with her and becomes conscious of the isolation and alienation his work imposes on him.

The film’s style is minimal with sparse dialogue and an emphasis on strong and restrained acting that brings out the emotional pain of isolated existences in a fragmented society. Viewers become aware of the emotional consequences of time travel and its potential to inflict dramatic long-term changes on people and society through an apparent minor change in one’s actions. Yes, breaking up a couple’s marriage so that they do not bring into the world a future psychopathic killer may be a laudable goal for some but it also means that two people, their families and others around them might suffer unnecessary pain that in itself could also have long-term social consequences.

The film’s bare-bones presentation and its plot revolving around two lost souls (one of them literally – does the Time Agent remember which future he actually comes from?) are sure to have a deep emotional impact on viewers. At times it can be unbearable to watch, especially when the girl finally makes her decision. The Time Agent discovers that for all the choices he makes that affect other people’s lives and the direction of their futures and their societies’ futures, he ultimately has no influence on his own future.

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