'Alone' ('Honja'): Film Review

Alone still - H 2016
Courtesy of Nongbu Film
A distinctive psychological thriller.

South Korean helmer Park Hong-min's thriller, about a man trapped in an endless nightmare, will make its international premiere at Rotterdam after its award-winning debut at the Busan and Seoul festivals.

With its nonlinear narrative revolving around photographs, suppressed traumas and warped workings of the brain, Park Hong-min's thriller about a man trapped in an unending cycle of death-infused dreams could be seen as a Korean equivalent of Christopher Nolan's early work. Boasting fluid tracking shots, a handful of stunning set pieces and an intense central performance from actor Lee Ju-won, Alone is a distinctive vehicle that could very well serve as Park's calling card — his Following or Memento, maybe — before producers come knocking with bigger projects.

Having already won an audience award at home at the Busan International Film Festival, Alone should secure sustained international exposure after its international premiere at Rotterdam and consolidate the director's reputation as an auteur who deftly churns out genre cinema with wit, invention and depleted resources. (His debut, the 3D drama A Fish, which bowed in competition at Rotterdam in 2012, cost only $61,000.)

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Skipping into the limelight after his supporting role in Lee Kwang-kuk's dream-infested comedy A Matter of Interpretation, Lee Ju-won plays Su-min, a photographer trying to document a sprawling neighborhood awaiting gentrification just across the street from his studio. In perhaps a nod to Nolan's hero Alfred Hitchcock — specifically Rear Window — Su-min's lens happens upon a group of hooded men bludgeoning a woman on the roof of a deserted building. Spotting him taking pictures, the assailants storm over, break into his room and hit him on the head with a hammer.

Cutting to one of the shanty-town alleys shown from afar just moments ago, Su-min wakes up strangely unscathed but unclothed as well. Stumbling down winding, eerily silent passageways, he runs first into a crying boy and then a sobbing woman. Ignoring them and making his way back to his apartment, he finds a headless body and somehow is re-assaulted by the masked gang. Regaining consciousness in the very place he awakened a few minutes before, this time fully clothed, he meets the kid and the woman again.

As he engages with them, his backstory unspools as he trips through ever stranger dreams, in which he (or a younger version of him) confronts his childhood trauma revolving around his mother (Yoon Young-min) and his broken relationship with his girlfriend (Song You-hyun).

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But Alone is neither Groundhog Day nor Edge of Tomorrow; Su-min (or some of his other incarnations) does not necessarily get to dream the same dream and emerge from it more enlightened and/or victorious. This is a story about an anti-hero acknowledging his inner demons rather than defeating them. The way Su-min is sucked into the menacing neighborhood he has kept at a distance mirrors how he is forced to confront the feelings he has suppressed within him for years.

Making use of one of the many unseemly, cluttered neighborhoods dotting Seoul and other South Korean cities today, Park has created a perfect physical environment to illustrate the confusion of his protagonist. Admittedly, Alone could still do with some trimming, especially in the meandering monologues or conversations which seem to lead nowhere. Fortunately, these odd mundane moments never really threaten to derail Alone from becoming one of the more intriguing indie outing to emerge from South Korea during the past year.