Ahn Gooc-jin makes one hell of an impression with Alice in Earnestland (2015), a pitch-black South Korean comedy. At times the film feels a more more pitch-black than it does a laugh-out-loud comedy, but it uneven tone aside this is not a film viewers will forget in a hurry.
Soo-nam (Lee Jung-hyun) seems to have a dream life: a job as an accountant for a local factory in Maseok, and a loving fiancee with whom she plans a dream home. When their life is struck by a string of misfortunes, however, Soo-nam has no other choice than to take revenge on a world that let her down.
Much of the film takes place in flashback. It begins with Soo-nam taking a hapless therapist (Seo Young-hwa) hostage, tying her to her chair, and forcibly telling them her life story. It is a story that begins in high school and ends with Soo-nam working tirelessly to afford a run-down house in a poor suburb while her fiancee Kyu-jung (Lee Hae-young) lies in hospital in a vegetative state. When her suburb is selected for urban renewal, guaranteeing Soo-nam a lucrative payout, a local community group sets up a protest against the scheme. While that begins with petitions and banners, it soon descends into betrayal, physical violence, and even kidnap and torture.
There is a long, rich tradition of revenge films in Korean cinema – particularly those directed by critical darling Park Chan-wook (Sympathy for Lady Vengeance, Oldboy). Ahn skewers the conventions of these films very effectively, but at the same time her screenplay also includes those elements that she mocks in a very serious sense. When events turn violent they can become properly confronting, and it becomes hard to laugh at characters suffering genuine harm and injury – even death. It certainly makes Alice in Earnestland a highly distinctive comedy, but also a rather difficult one as well.
Lee Jung-hyun is excellent as Soo-nam, with her aggressive optimism during the film’s first half giving way to a more manic, revenge-obsessed persona in the second. Also very effective as Seo Young-hwa as therapist Kyung-sook – who has much more to do with Soo-nam’s predicament than she realises – and Myung Gye-nam as the deeply odious ‘Sergeant Major’ Choi, who leads the community protest.
The film is elegantly and inventively shot by Lee Seok-jun, with a vivid use of colour and plenty of interesting photography and framing. Ahn showcases a growing divide between South Korea’s working and middle classes, and rising inequality as one expands and the other flounders. There is an awful lot going in Alice in Earnestland, and while some elements fail to properly gel together or land gracefully many others do. The film is a mess, but it is at least a troublesome, anarchic, and gleefully entertaining mess.