by Jason Suzuki
Alone, Park Hong-min’s sophomore feature, opens with a POV shot. Inside a capsule sized studio apartment that we’ll become more familiar with as the film continues on, we are placed in the shoes of a man desperately, with comic inefficiency, clean up blood. An amount that signals crime scene. It won’t be the first time the point of view technique is clearly used but its crudeness, in stark contrast to the smooth, well-choreographed long takes of the rest of the film, allows it to stick with you. It’s a clever way to make sure the opening stands out and to signal that it is important. To what its direction is leading the viewer to though is anyone’s guess as Park’s film is more of a showcase for how style can be used to evoke a feeling, in this case the one of the title.
The opening scene concludes on a collage of photos taped to the wall depicting a labyrinth hill-side town in Seoul. We cut to the actual view of the town, a trio of masked men drag a girl to one of the rooftops and murder her in broad daylight. Su-min (Lee Ju-won) witnesses this and snaps some photos only to be seen and chased down by the murderers. Su-min grabs an umbrella to try and hide before giving up on the cover and running into his apartment. The killers still find him, break in, and smash him on the head with a hammer. This whole sequence is seamless and in real time. When Su-min wakes up it's night, he's naked, and he's been placed within the hilly shanty town he was taking photos of to begin with. The use of real time will continued to be used despite us now entering a space where memory is externalized.
There is a technical bravado the entire film, the use of the extended take being the most foregrounded of devices in Park's arsenal. But unlike films such as Birdman it is evocative and does not seem to be without reason. The fact that Park feels comfortable to change up the takes with inserts when he pleases shows that this is not meant to necessarily wow the viewer and take them further out of the story.
The second scene, the inciting incident, is filmed in much the same way as the rest of the film making it stylistically indistinguishable from the memory prison/purgatory Su-min is trapped in. This could either be intentional or an oversight but it adds a quality to it that boils down to being downright unsettling. While naked, Su-min encounters a kid waiting at the bottom of a flight of Escher-esque stairs, holding a knife and crying. The kid starts to climb the steps and Su-min starts to waddles away, the cries still heard at the same distance. You eventually find out who the kid is as the film reveals itself to be more and more internal to Su-min but it's incredibly off putting the few interactions Su-min has.
Park Hong-min will continue to be a filmmaker to watch if he can find ways to sustain just how engaging his work is. Late into the film new ideas are introduced and a clearer picture is presented but for every added ingredient to the puzzle there is another moment of slogging repetition. It's a quick experience at just 90 minutes but for a film so focused on the subjective that running time could have been reduced to an even brisker, subjective amount. Nonetheless this is a successful straddling of experimental film and mood piece.
Alone plays Wednesday, July 6 at the New York Asian Film Festival.
Jason Suzuki is co-editor to Cinema Adrift.