The dark comedy is, in my opinion, one of the hardest genres to accomplish. To take serious and taboo themes and put a humourous view on it requires an assured hand on all aspects of the storytelling. If the story is shown too serious, the humour will be seen as out of place. If the story is too comical, the serious themes will be seen as jarring. Great examples of dark comedies are American Psycho, A Clockwork Orange, Heathers and of course, Dr. Strangelove. So when I was about step into the rabbit hole to watch Alice in Earnestland, I was very nervous. Was the trip worth taking or will it end up landing with a thud?
The film starts off during a tense therapy session of the seemingly spirited
Alice Jeong Su-nam (Lee Jeong-hyeon), and she starts to recount her hard-boiled life leading up to her current situation. When she was 16, she was faced with a major life-altering decision: to get a job in a factory or to continue studying? She chose the latter and found work as an accountant (shown with great visuals and editing), in which she proved to be very resourceful in. She also met her first man, factory worker Gyu-jeong (Lee Hae-yeong), and married him, but he turned out to be almost deaf. After having expensive cochlear implant surgery (shown in all of its gory glory), Gyu-jeong then accidentally chopped his fingers off at work and thereafter stayed at home, unemployed and morose.
For the next 12 years, Su-nam worked frantically to earn enough money for them to buy a home; but as prices had gone up over time, she had to get a large loan to buy a flat. Then one day, she came home to find Gyu-jeong had committed suicide. Again failing in general, (quite amusingly I might add) he ended up in hospital, and Su-nam was hit with such huge medical bills that the doctor recommended euthanasia (hilariously sugar-coated as a positive term). So when Su-nam is drowning in debt and she has to deal with urban renewal schemes, murder, torture, improvised weapons, a vegetable of a husband; it’s obviously going to get on her nerves and it is from then on, she declares vengeance on those who have oppressed her.
Were my fears founded when I watched this film? Thankfully, the balance between laughs and drama leaned more on the good side than the bad. Director Ahn Gooc-jin employs a lot of editing tricks (alongside editor Kim U-il) and visual cues (thanks to cinematographer Lee Seok-jin) to great effect that gives off a cartoony vibe that accentuates the humour of it all. The screenshot above is just one of the many visual jokes that is amusing. The cinematography and pacing evoke a feel that is similar to Wes Anderson and Ahn manipulates the audience into questioning the actions of the characters in humourous ways, arguably making the first half more enjoyable than the second.
The social commentary in the script does not always ring true due to how cartoony the supporting characters are. But in context of the film’s title, it actually makes sense, since Su-nam is a substitute of Alice and all of the characters surrounding her are the creatures in the rabbit hole; most of them being antagonists to her. And the social commentary provides the backbone of the story and it does ring true to the main character Su-nam, and actress Lee Jeong-hyeon fully commits to the role.
Lee (who really reminds me of Chinese actress, Bai Baihe) capably shows Su-nam’s denial, her tenacity, her desperation and especially her humourous side with aplomb. Although her character becomes more vengeful and crazed in the second half, she never lets the audience forget that she is a victim of the South Korean economic dream. The supporting cast are great with their caricatured and villainous roles (apart from Lee Hae-yeong, who’s a likable schlub of a husband) like Seo Yeong-hwa as the psychiatrist and especially Myeong Gye-nam as the former army veteran Choi Do-cheol, who is the catalyst of the violent turn of events.
The main flaw of the film which will irk people out there is the violence. Some scenes are obviously meant to shock to convey the stakes of the film, like a scene when Su-nam is confronted by Choi. Aside from that and some torture scenes (involving a hot iron), most of it is very over-the-top in my eyes to the point of hilarity, particularly a scene that involves an improvised throwing star and a metal pole, some will definitely be disturbed by the violence of the film. It certainly helps if you have prior knowledge of South Korean cinema to see the humour of the violence, since they have lots of references to older films, particularly Park Chan-wook films like Sympathy for Lady Vengeance and Sympathy for Mr. Vengeance. The film’s entertainment factor relies on the certain sense of humour the audience has, and the violence will definitely answer the question of whether they have it or not.
Another flaw is that the main character can be hard to sympathize with when the film takes a darker turn, and it can render the emotional investment down quite a bit. Her decisions are questionable though understandable given the escalating circumstances, but again, it all depends on the tolerance and embrace of the audience. Fortunately, even through all the violence and the obstacles Su-nam faces, the abrupt, yet suitable conclusion will even make the most jaded feel warm inside, with a twisted smile on their face.
Overall, Alice in Earnestland is a well-executed and horrifically dark comedy, but is also a twisted journey about a woman who has to overcome all obstacles to determine her own future. Lee Jeong-hyeon is a force of nature and her performance alone is worth the price of admission.
P.S – Renowned director Park Chan-wook was responsible for the casting of Lee Jeong-hyeon in the lead role and is also the director of The Handmaiden, a film in Sydney Film Festival 2016.
Review Score: THREE AND A HALF STARS (OUT OF FIVE)
Alice in Earnestland screened as part of this year’s Sydney Film Festival.