'Alice in Earnestland' ('Seong-sil-han Nara ui Alice'): Film Review

Alice in Earnestland still - H 2015
Courtesy of KAFA Films
A promising premise squashed by violence.

South Korean director Ahn Gooc-jin’s feature debut revolves around a woman’s descent into extreme behavior as she struggles to pay the hospital bills for her comatose husband.

Charting a woman’s descent into ever deadlier behavior as she attempts to get out of her debt-ridden existence, Alice in Earnestland is a social satire which fizzles as it plunges into a rabbit hole of spiraling violence. While the movie does provide a platform for singer-actor Lee Jeong-hyun to showcase her range, first-time director Ahn Gooc-jin’s crowd-pleasing avenging-angel tropes extinguish all the film’s early promise as an innovative deadpan comedy.

A low-budget production backed by the Korean Academy of Film Arts, Alice was propelled into wonderland as it broke into the South Korean box office top ten upon its release in August. More commercial than its film-school roots might suggest, and quirkier than most of its indie counterparts, Ahn’s debut — which premiered at the Jeonju International Film Festival, where it won the top-prize at its Korean competition — has successfully straddled the chasm between mainstream acceptability at home and festival acceptance abroad. Having made its international bow at Vancouver, the film has made disparate stops on the circuit, from Warsaw to Hong Kong — a run which may well continue courtesy of the film's abundant, cartoonish cruelty.

The film begins as Lee’s character, Su-nam, ties up and gags a therapist (Seo Young-hwa) and proceeds to unspool her life story. Via a long flashback, Su-nam recalls her past as a star student whose early academic success is stunted by a cruel world in which she is told that only her body matters. She ends up working in a factory, where she seems to have found happiness through marriage to a fellow worker (Lee Hae-young). Tragedy quickly strikes, however, as her husband loses his hearing, his fingers (in an accident at work) and his job — a humiliation which leads him to try and kill himself.

He ends up comatose — a condition which leads to Su-nam working multiple jobs to foot his medical bills and also the mortgage of their apartment, which she bought to make him happy. Her struggles up to this point are conveyed in sequences boasting terrifically comical mise-en-scene, sharp editing and a screenplay of both acerbic humor and pungent melancholy.

Alice begins to come apart, however, as the politics and the violence become more explicit. Su-nam discovers a lifeline in the form of an urban renewal program, which, if successful, will see her receiving a huge compensation for her apartment. Coaxed by a politician into starting a petition supporting the project, Su-nam finds herself beaten, burnt and put through the wringer — metaphorically and literally — by a group led by none other than the therapist and her sadistic henchmen.

The sardonic wit that shapes the first part of the film dissipates as Ahn transforms Su-nam (and Alice) into a vehicle of outright vitriol and vengeance. As the protagonist and her nemeses lose their heads in an ever more bizarre battle, Alice also loses its originality and its power to convince, a downward spiral even Lee Seok-jun’s inventive camerawork can’t properly salvage. 

Production company: KAFA Films

Cast: Lee Jeong-hyun, Lee Hae-young, Seo Young-hwa, Myung Kay-nam

Director: Ahn Gooc-jin

Screenwriter: Ahn Gooc-jin

Producers: Lee Ji-seung, Park Chan-ok

Director of photography: Lee Seok-jun

Production designer: Son So-il

Editors: Ahn Goo-cjin, Kim Woo-il

Music: Jang Young-gyu

International Sales: CGV Arthouse

In Korean

No rating; 90 minutes