Alice In Earnestland (Seong-sil-han na-la-ui Ael-li-seu)

Korea (2015) Dir. Ahn Gooc-Jin

All our lives we are told that if we work hard and play by the rules we can reap the rewards at the end of the day. Unfortunately we know that isn’t always true and those who take the short cuts get ahead and prosper while the true grafters remain at the bottom of the pile, never to catch a break.

Soo-nam (Lee Jung-Hyun) discovered as a child that she was very good with calculators, abacuses and the like, but when she finally leaves school, computers had taken over and Soo-nam’s first job is a disaster. However she did find a husband at her job, the hard-of-hearing Kyu-jung (Lee Hae-Young) who eventually becomes deaf.

Using the money saved to buy a home, Kyu-Jung has an operation to restore his hearing but an accident at work sees him lose two fingers. While Soo-nam continues to work all hours to recoup the money, a depressed Kyu-jung tries to hang himself, ending up in a coma. Soo-nam struggles to pay the hospital bills until she receives an offer that will see her debts paid off in full.

This debut from Ahn Gooc-Jin is a curious beast that suffers from the same problem many Korean films do, in that it can’t decide what genre it is in or where it wants to go. It begins like a satirical black comedy and shows great promise and individual flair, echoing the sort of quick edit quirkiness of Japanese and French comedies. This lasts for the first twenty minutes or so before it slowly morphing into a cynical social drama.

We first meet Soo-nam as she lets herself into the office of disinterested psychiatrist Kyung-sook (Seo Young-Hwa) and holds her hostage while Soo-nam explains her problems to her. The interaction between the two, especially the reactions from Kyung-sook, make for a fun opening before the flashback detailing Soo-nam’s early life begins.

Her move to employment and relationship with Kyu-jung are played out with equal levity until the trouble starts. Having spent the house money on the ear operation Soo-nam is back to square one in working herself to the bone, taking on any and every odd job possible for nine years. Soo-nam changes from a happy-go-lucky wife to a downtrodden physical wreck before our eyes, this physical change reflected in the change in tone.

Once we hit the half way mark everything changes. The new storyline – now involving property developers wanting to buy the houses in Soo-nam’s district – still has satirical potential but instead, Ahn decides to go for the jugular, entering into a grisly dissertation on the darker side of human nature, encompassing violent victimisation and bloody revenge.

Continuing the flashback, we learn Kyung-sook is leading a protest against the development, along with retired army major Choi Do-cheol (Myeong Gye-nam). Meanwhile Soo-nam is recruited by the head of the development project (Lee Dae-Yeon) to get signatures supporting the project in exchange for the money to pay Kyu-jung’s hospital bills.

Suddenly the opening is put into a new perspective, the frequent returns to this timeline offering further revelations in explanation of a prior reference. Of course this is a well-worn formula but a very efficacious one when done right, and to his credit, Ahn does it right. It is what he does with it which becomes the problem.

When watching the second half of the film, the giddy silliness and deadpan sardonic humour seems a distant memory and the feeling is that we are watching a different film entirely. Dark comedy is one thing but Ahn embraces all our grisly violence, including Soo-nam being punched in the face then later bound and tortured. Even with the mordant early going this is still going too far and unpleasant to watch.

Driving Soo-nam to extracting her murderous revenge ruins her character and the premise of the story. Conceptually the idea is to watch a woman suffer from a continual litany of mishaps and bad luck until she eventually over comes the odds and ends up on top again. Granted Ahn delivers this, but the way Soo-nam is practically crushed into the dirt and is forced to fire back in kind feel mean spirited towards both her and the community that surrounds her.

By this point the satire has been extinguished and under the circumstance of the tone change Soo-nam becomes a difficult person to root for, although our sympathy for her never wavers. If Ahn was keen on holding a mirror up to the selfishness of closed minded communities then following a singular path would have served his cause better and made for a more coherent and satisfying film.

That said we are treated to a superb performance from lead actress Lee Jung-Hyun. A former pop singer whose film career has a decade gap in it, Lee is rigidly committed to the role of Soo-nam and the remarkable physical changes she adopts in essaying the steady decline of Soo-nam’s fortunes and emotional grip is almost chameleon like in execution.

While a few familiar faces offer support, their characters are less nuanced and are drawn from conventional stock, allowing Lee to carry the entire film on her shoulders. Thankfully Lee is more than up for the task and Ahn at least steers her in the right direction whilst giving her enough room to make Soo-nam appear three dimensional and unique.

For a first time helmer, Ahn shows great flair in the opening comedy segments and a knack for portraying disturbing violence in the later scenes. However bringing these two elements together, even with cleverly laid out script, Ahn’s ambitions and vision currently exceed his abilities.

There is a chance some viewers will be more lenient towards Alice In Earnestland for the sharp change of tone and style, and while a well made and assured debut, this experience is too jarring to overlook, especially as it comes at the expense of the goodwill engendered by the deliciously caustic opening.