Format: Cinema

Seen at Rotterdam 2016

Director: Park Hong-min

Writers: Cha Hye-jin, Park Hong-min

Cast: Lee Ju-won, Song You-hyun

Original title: Hon-ja

South Korea 2015

90 mins

A promising but ultimately disappointing elliptical journey through a labyrinthine Seoul.

The thin line between real and unreal, solid ground and liminality, sanity and insanity, dream and nightmare, certainty and confusion, is the wire that most of director Park Hong-min’s second film Alone balances upon. An oppressive mystery tour of the alleyways, rooftops, stairwells and labyrinthine passages of a tightly packed Seoul shantytown reflects metaphorically the circuitous nature of the protagonist’s mind.

As the film opens, he is looking out of his studio window and inadvertently witnesses masked men murdering a woman on a nearby rooftop. Since he is a photographer he grabs his camera and begins taking pictures of the crime. Having been spotted by the perpetrators, he hides away in his studio, but is soon located by the thugs who assault him with a hammer, rendering him unconscious. When he awakes it is night time and he finds himself naked and lying in the street. As he attempts to recover both clothing and memory, he runs furiously around the area, up and down stairs, in and out of alleyways like a rat in a T-maze – a T-maze that keeps heading into dead-end pathways. As he keeps sprinting around this physical and mental maze, he encounters a variety of odd characters and finds himself thrust into a series of strange and startling scenarios. These encounters are presented elliptically; their logical and chronological ordering shuffled like a deck of cards. Sometimes, similar events are encountered more than once but with different narrative frameworks intended to disorient the protagonist as well as the audience.

Now, this oft-used approach to plotting in arthouse cinema – a signifying indicator of the genus – can have its rewards, but it can be risky too, if not handled in a convincing and meaningful manner. There needs to be some sort of cinematic reward for the spectator’s work in sticking to the film and trusting the director and editor’s decisions as to story presentation, and in this regard Alone founders. The overall film did not present this viewer with any gifts for post-viewing reflection or insightful observations to be taken away from the cinema. It simply did not persuade. It has been said by distributors that for a critic to call a film a ‘festival film’ is a nail in the coffin for the sales agent, so apologies in advance, but Alone falls exactly into that category.

James B. Evans

This review is part of our Rotterdam 2016 coverage.