“Sori: Voice from the Heart” (로봇, 소리) – 2016 SDAFF Review

A father searches for his missing daughter.  A secret satellite crashes to Earth.  This criss-cross of a drama and science fiction leaves little room for error, but director Lee Ho Jae crafts a thoughtful and surprisingly moving commentary on finding purpose – and closure – in “Sori: Voice from the Heart” (로봇, 소리).  Veteran actor Lee Sung Min plays Hae-gwan, a doting father to daughter and only child Yoo-ju, making a pact with her to return to their “secret base” (a pastel-colored ice cream shop in Daegu) in case she gets lost like she does in the opening portion of the film.  As seasons pass and various extras occupy the space that a young Yoo-ju and her father once shared, it’s clear that time has been harsh to Hae-gwan.  His daughter has disappeared 10 years earlier, his relationship with his wife is strained and as such, he is trapped in time, even clutching a dated mobile flip phone in the hopes that Yoo-ju will miraculously call the number he made her memorize as a a child.

A lead connected to his numerous “missing person” ads around town brings Hae-gwan to a remote island.  He doesn’t find Yoo-ju but instead winds up on a beach alongside a mysterious satellite who seems to have gathered all sorts of phone numbers, voicemails and GPS coordinates over time.  Facial recognition from the device, which Hae-gwan eventually nicknames “Sori” (Korean for sound), connects the human being to various related records.  Through these, Hae-gwan discovers that he can possibly inch closer to finding his daughter.

It’s a personal journey that is not without its pitfalls.  With the help of Sori, Hae-gwan comes across bits and pieces of Yoo-ju’s past through acquaintances and friends, and each of these encounters connects the dots between his disjointed memories.  These are played out in flashbacks (obvious when the picture switches from present-day disheveled Hae-gwan to his well-coiffed earlier self), with up-and-coming television actress Chae Soo-bin playing Yoo-ju, who we learn is 19 at the time of her disappearance.  Trailing after Sori’s data are the American and Korean governments in a subplot that is a bit of a stretch – and accompanied by predictably wooden dialogue in English – although it provides an opportunity for actress Honey Lee to flex her bilingual muscles as sassy scientist Ji-yeon.

Playing out in parallel with Hae-gwan’s quest is that of Sori, which exhibits just enough human qualities to joust, at times humorously, with her human companion’s surliness and desperation.  However, it’s a scene featuring Sori alone that proves to serve as an effective summation of the film’s message: at one point, separated from her captor and lost in the city, the robot strolls along many an empty street and past a curious pedestrian who doesn’t bother to find out why a machine is out and about with no minder.  Other than searching for Hae-gwan, it goes without saying that there is also a lonely search for purpose – a trek that any human can relate to.

“Sori: Voice from the Heart” screens at the San Diego Asian Film Festival on Sat., Nov. 12, at 1 p.m. PT at the La Paloma Theatre.  For tickets, go to festival.sdaff.org.  It also screens at the New York Korean Film Festival the same day at 7 p.m. at the Museum of the Moving Image.