SIFF 2016: Alone (Park Hong-min, 2015)

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The Korean psychological thriller Alone begins with an enticing update on Rear Window. On a rooftop across the street from his apartment, a photographer named Su-min witnesses a woman being attacked by three masked men. He snaps a few shots of the crime but betrays his presence to the perpetrators, who come rushing off the roof and toward his building. Su-min tries to hide but the men soon find him and just as they are about to bash in his head with a hammer, the camera cuts and he wakes up naked in the alleyways that surround his apartment.

At this point–and all the way to its conclusion an interminable 90 minutes later–these labyrinthine alleyways act as purgatory for Su-min. He bumps into his ex-girlfriend and they get into an argument, he finds a childhood facsimile of himself, who brandishes a kitchen knife which he literally uses to kill his father. Each time a scene reaches a traumatic crescendo, Su-min wakes up again, back at the beginning of the alley, before stumbling off into another dream. Or is it memory?

But none of these narrative elements are unique enough to garner interest. Su-min is kind of a jerk, as is pointed out by his girlfriend on more than one occasion. The teasing out of his past only serves to make the predictable and histrionic reveals deflating. The movie wants to be a puzzle film but it explains itself far too bluntly for there to be any intrigue to its unfolding. At one point, Su-min even says that the alleyways are like paths in his brain. This comes over an hour into his journey, long after the audience has sussed this particular profundity out. Earlier he is being filmed by an unseen presence who turns out to be–wait for it–himself!

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Director Park Hong-min has a degree of technical talent but his attempts at psychology are embarrassing. He knows film but I’m not quite sure he knows people. The best marriage of filmmaking and plot in Alone comes in the first ten minutes, as the criminals descend on Su-min’s apartment and he cowers in fear. It is the most generic, potboiler premise but Park pulls it off with style. With propulsive drums on the soundtrack, a hermetic atmosphere and a camera that refuses to cut, Park conjures up a real moment of terror. He would best be served going after an audience’s pulse instead of its mind.

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