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Following last year’s juggernaut The Age of Shadows, Warner’s entry into the Korean market takes an indie turn with first-time filmmaker Lee Zoo-young’s A Single Rider, a marked departure from standard Korean drama of the last few years. Headlined by superstar Lee Byung-hun (Antoine Fuqua’s The Magnificent Seven), the Sydney set and shot meditation on regret sees Lee as a Korean George Bailey of sorts, reevaluating his place in the world after his business goes belly up. A quiet, thoughtful film, which the Korean industry seems to have abandoned for blazing action and brutal violence in recent years, A Single Rider’s status as a thematic and stylistic outlier could earn it an audience in Asia and overseas urban markets, where Lee’s name above the title carries some weight. As pretty as Sydney is, director Lee’s visuals are largely prosaic, making download and streaming services a strong option as well.
A Single Rider begins with securities broker Kang Jae-hoon (Lee) facing the wrath of investors when an investment turns out to be stock fraud, and the firm files for bankruptcy. Disgraced and broke, Jae-hoon packs up his home office in Seoul and books a ticket to Sydney, where his wife Soo-jin (Kong Hyo-jin) and son Jin-woo (Yeong Yoo-jin) live in order for Jin-woo to get an education. Things go from bad to worse, as Jae-hoon finds himself a visitor in his own life: Soo-jin has rediscovered her love of music and she’s made fast friends with her neighbor, Chris (Jack Campbell), a construction worker. He lurks around the Bondi street Soo-jin lives on and makes the locals suspicious, but never finds the strength to let his family know he’s there. When he realizes Soo-jin is making plans to apply for permanent residency, Jae-hoon is compelled to make a decision as to whether to let his family go.
There’s a decidedly Shyamalan-esque element to A Single Rider that astute viewers will likely cotton on to, one that can either been read as gratuitously gimmicky or genuinely surprising, depending on one’s tolerance for whimsy. Either way, writer-director Lee manages to balance the film’s sillier parts with its introspective tone without ever falling into indulgence, or for that matter groan-worthy sentimentality.
That has much to do with Lee’s singular focus, and her thorough grasp on the idea that the meat of the story is in Jae-hoon’s few days of contemplation — on his personal and professional regrets, on the choices that brought him to this point and on his quest for redemption, for which he may be using Gina (K-Pop star most recently seen in Train to Busan) as a conduit. She’s been duped out of every dime she earned on a working holiday and is stranded in Oz.
Lee brings a delicate, feminine touch to the (now) familiar financial malfeasance that has served as a running leitmotif, if not outright plot thread, in so much recent Korean filmmaking. She very consciously, and refreshingly, turns her gaze on the people affected by out-of-control banks rather than spinning an action thriller out of the material. Jae-hoon’s work afforded him a swank Seoul apartment, a postcard-perfect Australian house and school for his son. But it also cost him his dignity and his wife, whose time away has allowed her to pursue her career as a concert violinist and possibly enter into an egalitarian new relationship. That being said, Lee used a timely and intensely present subject as her springboard, but anything could have been the catalyst for Jae-hoon’s internal journey.
A Single Rider has its flaws: more than a handful of emotional beats don’t quite resonate as vividly as they should; Gina’s story is very nearly an fatal weak link; it’s unlikely Australian cops deal with missing dogs; and some of Lee and cinematographer Kim Il-youn’s images are a bit on the nose. Admittedly, there is a narrative turn that corrects many of the film’s more “Huh?” moments in retrospect. Of course, none of it would work without Lee, who turns in the kind of nicely modulated performance he gets to do so infrequently now: Rider is more low-key A Bittersweet Life than ostentatious Master. He gets solid support from Kong (Missing’s unstable nanny) as a woman discovering her own agency and grappling with what to do with it. Technical specs are excellent.
Production company: Perfect Storm Film Co., Ltd.
Cast: Lee Byung-hun, Kong Hyo-jin, An So-hee Jack Campbell, Yeong Yoo-jin, Leeanna Walsman, Annika Whiteley, Baek Soo-jang, Kay Eklund
Director: Lee Joo-young
Screenwriter: Lee Zoo-young
Producer: Kang Myung-chan, Kim Young-hoon, Ha Jung-woo
Executive producer: Choi Jae-weon
Director of photography: Kim Il-youn
Production designer: Han Ah-rum
Costume designer: Chae Kyung-hwa
Editor: Kim Sang-beom, Kim Jae-bum
Music: Cho Young-wook
World sales: M-Line Distribution
In Korean and English
No rating, 96 minutes
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