An early scene in Nelson Kim’s first feature Someone Else finds eager Korean American law graduate Jamie (Aaron Yoo) sitting across from his boss Barney (Paul C. Rush) on the first day of a summer program at a prestigious New York firm where he will specialise in mergers and acquisitions. When asked to say something about himself that cannot be learnt from his academically impeccable resume, Jamie fails to come up with a response, suggesting that he is the kind of unwaveringly focused Korean American who has adopted the maxim of “All work, no play” and denied himself an inner life, although it will soon transpire that there are abundant issues lurking behind his polite façade. Kim doesn’t necessarily set out to debunk the stereotype of the quiet, hard-working, over-achieving Asian American that represents the ‘model minority’. Instead, he unpacks it by showing the jittery, self-destructive anxieties that emerge once Jamie’s ideal trajectory is thrown off course by his own insecurities and contradictions.
Having relocated to undertake his internship, the impressionable Jamie stays with his comparatively laid back cousin Will (Leonardo Nam) who has spurned the studious path with a playboy lifestyle, albeit one that is still supported by his father. Despite a run of failed business ventures, Will maintains a cocksure persona through casual use of alcohol and cocaine, while keeping up appearances by making reservations at trendy clubs and hosting parties at his upscale apartment. Hanging out with Will leads Jamie to meet delectable entrepreneur Kat (Jackie Chung) and he callously breaks-up with his fiancée to be with her. However, their fledging relationship hits a rough patch once he imposes notions of ‘ownership’ on his easy going partner, prompting Kat to drift towards the more urbane Will.
Kim’s adroit handing of the relationship between Jamie and Will increasingly blurs two initially distinct Korean American identities as Jamie becomes arrogant through success at work and his romantic conquest of Kat while Will shows a more sensitive side after being humbled when his father finally decides to cut him off financially. The frequent use of mirrors illustrates the duality theme, but more interesting is Kim’s use of apartment space to show shifting economic power dynamics between the two cousins and boldly deliberate colour schemes to accentuate the viewer’s perception of their outward personalities. Beyond its take on Korean American identity in flux, the coolly detached style of Someone Else reflects a sense of big city dislocation that will be relatable to anyone who has been seduced by the glow of the metropolis only to become trapped in a cycle of long nights at the office while long-distance relationships are barely sustained by awkward Skype conversations.
Although not quite a thriller, this nimble and smartly designed independent production certainly plays with a mystery box structure that allows its slight narrative to play out from different angles with Kim taking a surrealistic turn in the final third as Jamie struggles to accept his failings. Most recognisable from his comic sidekick roles in such teen orientated studio fare as Disturbia (2007) and Nick and Nora’s Infinite Playlist (2008), Yoo gives his buttoned-down young professional a revealing twitchiness that pierces through the cultivated niceness, eventually giving rise to abrasive character traits.
The presumably minuscule budget entails that Someone Else remains relatively modest in its aims and scope, but this is certainly a highly intriguing debut that announces Kim as a sharp writer-director with some fresh approaches to examining Korean American masculinity.