Dir: Ahn Goocjin | Dragons and Tigers | South Korea | 2015 | 90 minutes
Those who have seen the French film Amelie know it as an upbeat, quirky, colourful film about an eccentric young woman. In that case, Alice in Earnestland is its darker, satirical, Korean twin sister.
Directed by Ahn Goocjin, the film revolves around a troubled young woman named Soonam. Having excelled in high school and gifted with extreme dexterity, she seems set for a bright future among the corporate elite. Unfortunately, in the age of computers, her talents are useless, and her promising career is short lived. As a result, her life turns into a never-ending downward spiral. A spiral that includes various financial burdens, a handicapped husband and self-interested bureaucrats preventing her from a rebound. As more desperation sets in, she becomes hellbent to do whatever it takes to get out of it.
The film is primarily a satire targeting bureaucracy. Throughout the story, it highlights many flaws and hypocrisies plaguing the system — in very clever ways too. At one point, doctors recommend Soonam’s deaf husband an electronic hearing transplant to improve his life. Ironically, that same hearing aid becomes the source of his degradation, leading doctors to recommend him euthanasia instead. Indeed it is a depressing notion, yet cunningly executed.
On that note, much of the film’s content is extremely dark. Some examples include attempting suicide, graphic violence (including torture), and simply the harsh reality of being near the poverty line. For those unprepared, it can be disturbing, yet even emotional at times.
Despite that, the film still somehow provides shameless fun as a dark satire. Character traits and flaws are humorously exaggerated, especially when they are in action. Some of the graphic moments are akin to well-executed cartoon mistake gags. Also, many silly situations act as clever analogies to larger social problems. These include people blindly signing petitions or leaders only counting the ‘Yes’ votes in a show of hands.
The biggest contributors to this crude enjoyment are its audiovisual beats. The editing is slick; each cut and sound effect designed to stimulate tinges of amusement. Returning to the topic of suicide, this technique managed to incite a tiny chuckle during one related moment. This sense of rapidity is even better with Soonam’s incredible dexterity. Her flawlessly fast-paced actions add to the rhythm — from throwing business card shurikens, to hypnotically arranging an abacus. Even if its humor goes over your head, this visceral beat keeps it engaging to watch.
Visuals alone, the film is very attractive to look at. Almost every shot is treated like a painting. Everything within the frame is meaningfully positioned; color tones are consistent, yet vibrant. Whether a scene is warm or grisly, there is a clear effort to give it the right look. Like a Wes Anderson film, a good amount of these shots could be hung up on your wall.
There are few issues despite the morbid fun. Its eccentricity can feel somewhat excessive at times, and the film can benefit from a little more poignancy. That way, its satirical highs can be all the more sweeter. These do not significantly detract from the experience though, and the movie still delivers a fitting emotional catharsis near the end.
Overall, Alice in Earnestland is a depressing lesson successfully peppered with creativity and wit. Indeed, there will be unease with how it addresses such heavy issues. That said, it’s certainly something not to miss — especially if you share its pitch-black sense of humour.