A young woman, Soo-nam (Lee Jeong-hyeon), attends the office of self-appointed psychiatric counsellor Kyeong-sook (Seo Young-hwa) 15 minutes before the service’s officially stated closing time, only to be unceremoniously told that no further appointments for the day will be taken.
Within moments, Kyeong-sook has been tied up, gagged, threatened with a knife and forced to ingest a foul-looking (unnamed) foodstuff by this dishevelled girl who clearly won't take no for an answer.
Being entirely at the mercy of this clearly unbalanced young woman and increasingly fearing for her safety, Kyeong-sook suggests that should Soo-nam talk about her problems then perhaps she’d be able to help. And so, without further ado, Soo-nam begins to detail her sad, woeful life story explaining in the process how her deaf husband ended up in a coma, what drew her to attend the counselling office and, indeed, the events that led her to decide that Kyeong-sook has to die...
Following a brief, fast paced intro/credit sequence featuring Soo-nam - complete with flower-patterned DM-type boots - powering around the city streets on her moped accompanied by a fairly offbeat, even whimsical, musical score, the setting jumps to the counselling office as Kyeong-sook attempts to provide counselling to a middle-aged, female client. However, far from being able to give any advice (or even get a word in edgeways) Kyeong-sook can only sit exasperated, staring at the clock as the woman in question endlessly bawls her eyes out, wailing at the top of her lungs. The wacky humour of these two early scenes clearly sets the tongue in cheek nature of ‘Alice in Earnestland’ from the very outset, a wise move considering the amount of violence that will present itself in later stages.
This tone is further accented by the fact that the ‘wailing woman’ is played by actress Lee Yong-nyeo - the scene, to my mind, reminiscent of an early segment in Park Chan-wook’s ‘I’m a Cyborg’ in which the same actress (as the main character’s mother) also had an off-the-wall psychiatric discussion/interview with a professional individual. That is just one of (what I at least feel are) a number of fairly clear references to classic Korean – mainly horror – films throughout the running time of ‘Alice in Earnestland’, but more on this later.
As Soo-nam begins to recount her tale of woe to her ‘captive audience’ at the counselling office, director Ahn Gook-jin uses her story to critique not only the Korean school system but also the difficulties inherent to modern life, regardless of education or indeed social background. In her teenage years, Soo-nam chose to follow the path of continuing study through higher education in the firm belief (as she was constantly told) that this would lead to a brighter future, only to later come to the conclusion that she would have been better off (and wouldn’t have had to work any longer or harder) leaving her studies for a menial job in a factory. Equally, since her formative years, all Soo-nam has wanted is the archetypal, traditional ideal of a Korean woman – having a husband, a home, a financially secure life, building and looking after her family – but every one of her desperate (and continuing) efforts to secure the life she so desires has been thwarted, as often as not by the very system she has tried so hard to abide by.
Don’t get me wrong, the social commentary present in ‘Alice in Earnestland’ has no real depth and consists largely of refutable generalisations – this is a horror comedy, not a biting dramatic social satire, after all – but it nonetheless serves to add some level of understanding, if not full blown credence, to Soo-nam’s increasingly frantic choices and her mental descent to the point where she feels violence is her only remaining option.
And speaking of:
The violence in ‘Alice in Earnestland’ is fairly graphic at times (increasingly so as the narrative unfolds) but ultimately stands as comparable to that found in classic Korean horror and thriller cinema as a whole. There are a couple of instances where injuries to individuals look somewhat fake (for example, the damage done to a brutal male’s eye) but, let’s face it, ‘Alice in Earnestland’ is a small, low budget production and as such that’s par for the course. Certainly, I never felt such issues detracted particularly from my immersion in the story and it could even be said that they add to the kitsch feeling throughout.
The violent scenes once again reference elements of several classic Korean horror films, especially those of Soo-nam abducted, held prisoner and tortured feeling almost like homages to similar captive/torture scenes from ‘Sympathy for Mr Vengeance’ (or even ‘Lady Vengeance’), or ‘Save the Green Planet’, to name but three. It could even be said that a segment involving a washing machine references ‘Death Bell’, albeit minus the razor blades.
The one violent ‘episode’ that could be deemed as a step too far involves Soo-nam (again, while she’s held captive) being tortured with a clothes iron. However, while I can fully understand the feelings of those who had a problem with the scene – either because of its extremely graphic nature or because it is brutal violence inflicted on a female by a male – to my mind, it is far more easily palpable than many instances of violence against women in numerous other Korean movies, simply because misogynistic aspects don’t play a part to any real degree. If we compare the violence of ‘Alice in Earnestland’ with that of ‘Invasion of Alien Bikini’, for example (which also features repeated violence against a female character), the latter included an underlying misogyny that frankly left a bad taste in my mouth to the extent that it rather turned me against the entire film. That certainly wasn’t the case in ‘Alice in Earnestland’ and, as such, difficult though the scene is to watch I feel it serves its purpose and fits with proceedings well. Controversial this segment of ‘Alice in Earnestland’ may be, but controversy has more than once allowed a Korean film to stand out from the crowd.
‘Alice in Earnestland’ has polarised viewer opinions to a huge degree since its release and one of the biggest criticisms aimed at the film is the fact that, aside from Soo-nam herself, the majority of characters are little more than caricatures. This is especially so in the case of Soo-nam’s deaf husband who after an accident does absolutely nothing to help our heroine as she works endless hours at several jobs just to keep the family’s head above water, ultimately attempting suicide and ending up in a coma, becoming an even greater burden on his wife, in the process. However, ‘Alice in Earnestland’ is first and foremost a journey through the increasingly unbalanced mind of a woman totally alone who has no-one at all to turn to and who must (without help from anyone) find a way to secure the dream future she’s always been told is her right. As far as I’m concerned, that in itself not only explains those around her being little more than cartoon characters (that is more than likely how they would appear from her fractured perspective) but also in fact makes their uselessness a virtual necessity.
As a final point, the humour in 'Alice in Earnestland' is the glue that holds the horror and drama together, and while it doesn’t always hit its intended mark it nonetheless succeeds overall in both inventiveness and originality, as does the narrative and story as a whole.
Step inside the frayed and twisted mind of Soo-nam (Lee Jeong-hyeon), a woman who wants only to have a simple, happy life with her deaf husband. However, the more she tries the more her efforts are thwarted, pushing her over the edge into increasingly fraught, and indeed violent, endeavours to secure the future she so desperately desires. Director Ahn Gook-jin’s debut feature, ‘Alice in Earnestland’, has polarised audiences since its release – you’ll either love it or absolutely hate it – but those who can indulge themselves in Soo-nam’s surreally comic horror story will be rewarded with inventive set pieces bringing thoughts of numerous classic Korean films to mind.
'Alice in Earnestland' (성실한나라의앨리스) / 2015 / Directed by Ahn Gook-jin
Cast: Lee Jeong-hyeon, Lee Hae-yeong, Seo Young-hwa, Myeong Kye-nam