Alone (South Korea, 2015) [NYAFF 2016]
A disturbing first-person perspective of cleaning the floor opens Park Hong-min’s second feature film. One notices red spots on the floor as the reason for cleaning, but the spots give way to large blotches of blood and the cleaning only deepens the disturbing, unknown nature of the situation. Meanwhile, on the soundtrack one can hear a mixture of whimpering and panting, guttural sounds seemingly the only way to react to such a mess. As the unseen character goes about cleaning (unsuccessfully) the red mess and stumbling around in the room as an attempt to register it, the perspective settles on a photo collage of a rooftop view of a town occupying a wall. The perspective then settles on a lone photo of a woman within the collage. As disorienting as this prologue may be, it contains the integral thematic and visual pieces of a puzzle that is the film (not to mention its nods to Rear Window  and Blow-Up ): a descent into one man’s un/consciousness, past and present; the play of visual media and ego on one’s perception of things; and the crooked, winding terrain of a town. Through a basic repertoire of long takes, pans, simple cuts, and elastic camerawork, ironically enough, Park presents the endlessly intriguing juggling act between reality, waking life, and dreams that form our constantly fragmenting and de-fragmenting subjectivity and sense of self.
The film itself is constructed like a collage, composed of segments whose ambiguous status as actuality or dream irresistibly draws one into the world. These segments are stitched together through simple cuts that cue the act of waking or simple pans of the camera, thus denoting the multiple planes of reality and perception that make up our un/consciousness. On the one hand, each segment can function as a standalone photograph, as it were; equipped with its own set of information, however partial, it reveals a facet of the man whose mind/reality is the film’s subject: Su-min (Lee Ju-won). On the other hand, when brought together, the segments compose a dream-loop that unmasks Su-min’s past/present experiences and the people whose lives have shaped his character.
The film’s initial trek between actuality and dream (or vice-versa), following the title credit, sets the eclectic tempo and nature of the segments and their connections with each other. It begins with a shot of the same town found in the photo collage while a pan reveals Su-min equipped with a camera and documenting what appears to be the murder of a woman by two men dressed/masked in black on one of the town’s nearby rooftops. However, contrary to what one might expect, the film does not enlarge upon this incident. Instead, Su-min finds himself the new target of the men and seeks escape. At the climactic moment of his terror, a cut shows Su-min waking up outdoors, naked in the cold and night. Such a scenario in which Su-min finds his life threatened constitutes subsequent segments and always gives way to the same simple cut to waking up in the same place, at night, with minute variations (such as his clothing or lack thereof). As anxiety-ridden and therefore absorbing as these segments may be, perhaps more significant is what happens upon waking, which brings into the picture the aforementioned town.
While actor Lee is flawless in conveying Su-min’s torn perception, particularly at a physical level, competing for the title of the main character is the town. Filmed on location around a Seoul suburb, the town’s tightly-knit arrangement of houses have engendered narrow alleys, steps, and walkways that hearken to a Byzantine maze. Accordingly, it greatly contributes to the film’s dream-nightmare-loop of the mind (and makes CGI superfluous). As Su-min tells his girlfriend Ji-yeon in a later segment, ‘This place feels like the inside of my brain.’ Time and again Su-min traverses these spaces, which are the film’s core sequences.
Su-min’s wanderings in the cold night in the town’s M.C. Escher-like network of paths and steps disclose an uncannily empty landscape, highlighted all the more by a small, recurring set of individuals that he encounters: a little boy who may or may not be Su-min as a child; the boy’s father; Ji-yeon; and his mother. He engages in conversations of varying lengths with each of these characters, who randomly appear and disappear within his line of vision and within the town’s maze. Shot in rather long takes, the conversations range from the mundane (Ji-yeon wanting to break up with him) to the dramatic (Su-min trying to stop the father from beating the boy). At times, these wanderings and conversations are interspersed with cuts to scenes set in an altogether different time and space, further ensconcing the spectator in the labyrinthine workings of the mind and in doubt as to which is internal or external. The most hypnotic variation of Sum-in’s wanderings in the town is when he seems to walk through this way and that, only to end up at the same point where he began, or nowhere near where he should be.
At one point in the film, Su-min emerges from the town and spills over into a main street. The linearity of the latter is like a visual sigh of relief, for Su-min and the spectator, but it is short-lived.
Apart from the town’s maze, the other spaces that make up the film are the balcony and Su-min’s workshop (the same room from the prologue); that they are not located inside the town is a striking characteristic. If the town is associated with dream, his past, and an in-limbo sense of his life, then death and anxiety are associated with the workshop, as in the prologue. And media-related existential self-dissections are associated with the balcony, as in Su-min’s witnessing of a murder through his camera; a scene that gives way to one of his mother via his cellphone; and Su-min’s breaking of the fourth wall and asking whoever is behind the camera, ‘Why are you filming?’
One could pose the same question to Park. But as an independent film in a Korean cinema landscape of blockbusters, Alone is a refreshing visual sigh of relief, serpentine structure/setting and all, and the only response that Park need provide.
Alone is showing as part of the New York Asian Film Festival on Wednesday July 6 at the SVA Theatre at 6:30pm. This screening is presented with the support of Korean Cultural Center New York. Tickets can be purchased from the Film Society of Lincoln Center website.