South Korean film “Alice in Earnestland” is a dark comedy about one woman who has reached for a good life but instead finds herself being pushed down to more despair waiting for her. While occasionally violent and bloody, the movie is hilarious in its quirky mixture of humor and pathos, and we cannot help but laugh even while feeling sorry for her messy predicament.
When she was a young high school student, everything seemed to be hopeful for Soo-nam (Lee Jeong-hyeon). She believed that she would get rewards if she tried hard, so she put lots of efforts into typewriting for her future office job, but, alas, all of her efforts turned out to be pretty useless when she belatedly realized she had not studied anything for computers. When I was young, somebody argued that typewriting skill might be useful even in the age of computer, but you need more than typing skill for operating a computer, you know.
After experiencing her first moment of dashed hope, Soo-nam gets a menial office job at some shabby factory instead, and that is where she meets the love of her life. Gyu-jeong (Lee Hae-yeong), a young factory employee with hearing impairment, proposes to her not long after they begin their relationship, and Soo-nam gladly accepts his proposal without hesitation. Although their economic situation is not very bright, they are happy to be with each other, and they are ready to work harder for a better life for them – and their future child.
Unfortunately, a bad accident happens to Gyu-jeong, who cannot work anymore due to his injury. While her husband is shamed and depressed by his inability to earn a living for them, Soo-nam stands by him as working as much as possible to support their life alone, but it seems there is no possible way for them to get out of their worsening economic situation. She tries to maintain her optimistic attitude for her as well as her husband, but then there comes another incident to strike their life.
Some time later, a redevelopment project is being planned in her district, it looks like Soo-nam will finally get a chance to solve her mounting debts and other problems once for all. The house belonging to her turns out to be located in the first area to redeveloped, and that means she will be able to sell her house at a considerably high price once the project is initiated as scheduled.
However, not so surprisingly, there is a big obstacle on her way. Kyeong-sook (Seo Young-hwa), a selfish local psychiatrist who is also the leader of district residents, is not so pleased about the redevelopment plan just because she is not the first one to benefit from it. Backed by a pompous ex-soldier and an unstable laundry shop owner willing to be her enforcers, Kyeong-sook will not step back easily, and she quickly becomes a major headache to a public servant in the charge of the redevelopment plan.
At first, all Soo-nam has to do for getting her money seems to be collecting the signatures from her neighbors as asked by that public servant in question, but she unintentionally gets herself into a big trouble when she unwittingly visits one of the residents she should have been careful of. As already announced during the darkly absurd opening sequence, that is just the beginning for more problems to come to her, and we soon meet two detectives snooping around the neighborhood for any clue for their latest case.
This is the first feature film by the director/writer Ahn Gook-jin, and he maintains the morbidly cheerful tone of his movie well through edgy black humor and good comic timing. There are several amusing moments which emphasize the warped reality in the film, and I especially like a very funny scene showing how one small impulsive act slowly culminates to an unexpected consequence for our big laugh. As the story becomes darker, it does not hesitates to mix violence and humor together, and we get a couple of nasty scenes when Soo-nam happens to be imprisoned and tortured by a certain character at one point (Did I mention that Park Chan-wook helped the production of the film?).
While her character keeps tumbling into more mayhem and madness, Lee Jeong-hyeon, who was terrific as a young incorrigible mother who happens to live with her problematic teenager son in “Juvenile Offender” (2012), gives an enjoyable performance dancing around absurd comedy and gloomy tragedy. Soo-nam is indeed an earnest woman equipped with a remarkable throwing skill for newspaper delivery, but she is only reminded again and again that good efforts do not always equal good rewards in her world, and Lee is superb as her character desperately holds onto her simple hope behind her innocuous façade.
The main job of the supporting actors is pushing Lee’s character in one direction or another, and they are effective in their respective caricature roles. While Lee Jeong-hyeon is gentle and decent as a nice guy who is the only light in Soo-nam’s difficult life, Seo Hae-yeong, Myeong Kye-nam, Lee Joon-hyeok, and Lee Dae-yeon are suitably unlikable in each own way, and Bae Je-gi and Ji Dae-han are a duo of dim detectives who have no idea on what their possible suspect is capable of.
“Alice in Wonderland” is a biting black comedy with uncomfortable laughs, and I had a fun with many of its barbed satiric moments. Although it could go further with its dark satire and its ending is weak and abrupt, I got enough good laughs from it, and Ahn Gook-jin and Lee Jeong-hyeon give us one of the impressive South Korean movie characters to remember in this year.