Korean Film Festival 2017 Review: A Single Rider (South Korea, 2017)

‘A Single Rider’ is a perplexing, afflictive, and at times distressing story about regret and consequences. It is reflective as much as it is polarising, and I left the cinema both curious and mostly annoyed. It was a shock to the system, and not in the way that I believe was intended.

The films’ beginning is bleak.

After years of prioritising his work as a moderately successful securities broker, our protagonist Kang JaeHoon (Lee Byung Hun) faces the wrath and scrutiny of hundreds of investors upon the news that the firm that he works for has filed for bankruptcy. Disgraced and desperate, JaeHoon spontaneously books a ticket from Seoul to Sydney.

Anger, confusion, and desperation set a heavy, almost hopeless, tone. However, JaeHoon’s arrival in Sydney marks a distinct breakaway from this, transitioning into something altogether more dreamlike. It is bright, and the tree-lined suburban streets of Sydney offer something undeniably familiar. At the same time something does not feel quite right; you would be forgiven for feeling particularly and peculiarly akilter.

It is in Australia that JaeHoon’s wife, SooJin (Kong Hyo Jin), and son, JinWoo (Yeong Yoo Jin), have lived for two years. However, a great-big family reunion does not play out as one may expect. Rather than announcing his arrival to the country, JaeHoon finds himself to be a spectator within his own life. Over the next week he lurks around suburban Bondi, spying on his wife and their son, exploring the house when they are out, and following them when they leave the house. All of this goes on without notice, except for the attention of ChiChi the family dog and the concern of a particularly nosey neighbour.

If that is not odd enough, a second story develops between JaeHoon and a young Korean girl called Jina (Sohee). After two years of working on a working-holiday visa, Jina finds herself deceived and drugged, losing not just her savings but also her visa and most of her possessions. JaeHoon agrees to help her in what one could assume is an attempt to redeem himself from the mess that he has found himself in.

It sounds bizarre, and it is. Unfortunately, it is also mostly … tedious. Despite having the potential to be something rather interesting or at least unusually intriguing, nothing really happens except for a whole lot of stalking. With my attention occupied upon the small details, I couldn’t help but notice that our protagonist and his young friend has not changed their clothes once since the beginning of the film. It is not until the final ten five minutes of the film that this seemingly large oversight is explained, exposing a large plot-twist that attempts to be genuinely shocking. Instead, it is really the only thing that makes much sense.

Kong Hyo Jin is ever-so-lovely, and gives a fairly robust performance, artfully balancing the dichotomous and often jarring emotions of happy yet hapless. Indeed, we see her character go from being disappointed, dissatisfied,  and lonely  to being care-free, content, and independent. This comes crashing down towards the end of the film, as we see her bitterly distressed, grieving, and disconsolate. Undeniably, Kong is the star of the movie. However, Lee Byung Hun’s performance is less impressive. Lee’s character spends most of the movie not speaking a single word, and any expression of emotion becomes lost, almost stoically detached and apathetic, except for a few key moments within the the progression of the story-line. Sohee’s character has the effect of bringing out a lot of this emotion; she is innocent and recklessly naive, but her youthfulness is infectious. Ironically, she injects life into the film.

Australian actor Jack Campbell’s performance is fortunately strong – as a supporting actor, he shines as the supportive, affectionate, and friendly neighbour. Indeed, his character is in stark opposition to that of our protagonist (which, in all honesty, makes you like him even more). However, his general happy-go-lucky attitude is over the top at times. This is all-the-more emphasised through  a rather emotional scene towards the end of the film, featuring an outburst that seems somewhat misplaced. Yet, you cannot help but like him. In comparison, his character is far more likeable than our protagonist.

For a film that attempts  to comment on greed and the effect of one’s actions, there seems to be no consequence for anyone’s actions.  Moreover, it deals with significant matters like suicide, murder, and infidelity with a tone of whimsy. I found this to be inherently troubling.  More so, because there seemed to be no definitive conclusion.

At the end of it all, I couldn’t help but leave feeling disappointed. The character development was fairly weak and at best, complexing. Nothing really happened. While the film attempted to address a few large issues and concepts, any resolution fell flat. Maybe the story was lost on me. Then again, maybe there was not much of a story at all. In this sense, it seems as if this film was a reflection. However, I did not feel as if the characters were relatable enough; this retrospective tale fell short of effectively communicating anything of much substance.

Its redeeming feature was the cinematography. Sydney was at her beautiful best with scenes featuring tree-lined suburban Bondi, sun-drenched beaches, and majestic Tasmanian coastlines; the iconic harbour-bridge and Opera House starred so constantly that, together, they deserved a mention in the rolling credits! Altogether, it was distractingly idyllic. Even with an underlying tone of the sinister, the movie almost appeared to be like one-great-big postcard.

Review Score: THREE STARS (OUT OF FIVE)

A Single Rider is being shown as part of the Korean Film Festival in Australia. For information visit www.koffia.com.au